by Lucas McMillan
On this point there could be no argument: Carrie had been a vigilant driver, the very picture of ramrodded attentiveness, until the moment her rented Alfa Romeo thumped into a sheep and vaporized it into a cloud of viscera and wool.
The impact still hummed in her hands like a tuning fork as she angled her car onto the black-sand shoulder and cut the ignition. The engine popped and hissed and the howling North Atlantic wind rushed to fill the vacuum of silence, pounding against the Italian sedan’s flimsy door paneling.
Her voice croaked out hoarse and uneven. She realized she hadn’t spoken in two days since that guy’s mint-green townhouse in Reykjavik made from reconstituted boat parts. She flicked on her hazards. The alarm-colored lights blared even redder through the sheep’s blood.
She opened her door and clambered into the heavy mist. The road behind her wound a faint gray trail through the Krafla lava fields, back up the valley of black volcanic rock before disappearing in a foggy crag. No cars, and night was falling. Not that it mattered.
The sun had not shown its face once in the four days since she arrived, and the lack of adequate lighting was, quite frankly, fucking up her Instagram. Sure, she’d snapped a few blurry selfies next to the imposing basalt columns at Svartifoss, but the sun had been a weak disk hovering on the wooly-gray horizon then (oh God, wool), and her arms were too short, and she refused to buy a selfie stick on principle, and she refused to ask one of the twinkling old men from the German tour bus to take her photo because of recent American embarrassments and her own pulsating sense of shame traveling alone. Brandon was the one in the couple who took the selfies because his arms were long, and it admittedly still made her very sad to attempt one without him.
There she went again. Thinking of Brandon like he was dead. She reminded herself that Brandon’s arms were, indeed, still long, that he was, in all likelihood, still good at taking selfies. It was only that those long arms were wrapped around someone else now. They were holding a phone above someone else’s head, at a perfectly flattering distance and angle.
The wind hammered around her. Her nose was assaulted by the hard-boiled-eggs scent of sulfur billowing out of the open volcanic pits in the valley floor.
The sheep lay splayed on its back in front of her car. Its entrails spilled out of its belly and lay steaming on the volcanic sand. Carrie was surprised by how beautiful she found the bloody tableau, like a Renaissance painting of martyrdom. The thought to take a picture flickered and she reached for the phone in her coat pocket, but she stopped and stepped closer instead.
The sheep’s wool was matted and overgrown, splotchy gray with sooty spots. An escapee from the flock. Carrie looked around the valley and there wasn’t another of the animals in sight. No vegetation, either. He must’ve traveled far to get here.
A great, sorrowful shame welled up in her chest. This was how it had ended for him. She tried to quell the feeling by reminding herself that there were 800,000 sheep in Iceland, more than double the human population (she remembered this fact from the seat back TV screen on the flight from New York), and she needn’t feel guilty for making it 799,999.
Her defense for herself formed in her mind.
The island’s rare native lichens were being devoured by this ravenous horde of livestock. When thought of this way, her running over a sheep became a radical environmentalist action. This wasn’t an issue of malice — she cared for animals. She grew up with guinea pigs, always. Of course she’d feel guilty if, for example, she’d struck a puffin waddling across the road, because they were beautiful and endangered. When puffins mated, they mated for life, monogamously, and that was something Carrie considered even more endangered still.
Brandon hated when she did this. Crafted a case in her mind to be presented to no one. He said he could tell when the evidence was ‘coming together upstairs’ by the way her forehead furrowed and she scrunched her nose. This was what would make her a good lawyer, she would say, and he would laugh, but in a way that strained at the corners of his eyes.
She prodded at the sheep’s ribs with the steel-enforced toe of her hiking boot.
No animals were native to Iceland. Everything here came from somewhere else.
So what the fuck was this thing doing in a dead volcano, in the road, in her way? It seemed cosmically unfair to her, like the stray bullet that struck her mailman, a reformed gangbanger.
The wind wailed through crags and a thin rain began to patter on her coat. She crouched on the heels of her hiking boots, the ones she bought online that were a size too small and still somehow not broken in, and laid a hand on the sheep’s head.
She couldn’t be angry. She wasn’t native here, either. Neither was anyone. Neither were Alfa Romeos.
She began to cry, loud and hot and ugly. Why not? They were the only two living beings in this valley of sulfurous death, she and the sheep, and so, of course, they collided. And now there was one thing left in the valley: a thoroughly ridiculous girl.
She ran her fingers through the creature’s dewy wool. Still a faint emanating warmth. Her absurd tears ran down the bridge of her nose and dripped onto the animal and she looked up to blink them away.
Through the hastening dark and the fog settling in the valley, she looked out at the field of millennia-old lava laid out before her. Stark among the natural tumbles of boulders and black sand, she saw, stacked sporadically in neat little piles, foot-high stone cairns.
She wiped her nose on the rough sleeve of her Gortex jacket and looked back up the road.
Without thought, she pulled her hood over her head, bunched up her jacket sleeves and snatched the sheep’s two hind legs in her hands. She lifted them under her armpits and dragged the animal onto the road’s shoulder.
It was heavier than she thought. She pulled the animal down the tumbling black rocks off the road, down into the lava field. Careful as she was, the animal’s head bounced violently off stones and its front legs, stiff and straight up in the air, waved in protest.
A taffy-like gravity seemed to pull her down, down into the field.
Many Icelanders believed in elves. Volcanic rock formations were where the elves prayed. The sheep’s guts snagged on a jagged rock and she pulled hard, snapping off a band of intestine. An offering.
Carrie stepped backward, one heel after the other on the wet rocks, down the slope. She paused for breath and felt sweat springing to her forehead. The sheep’s head was propped up on a rock and its glass marble eyes looked at her. She kept pulling.
The Vikings built cairns to mark paths and find their way. Tourists weren’t supposed to make them, but she was not a tourist. She was an elf.
She’d come here to collect stories. Stories free of law school and its cast of backbiting sycophants, stories free of Brandon. But she sensed this was a story she would never tell.
The hazard lights blinked above her in the mist. She reached a spot in the valley where the cairns were densely concentrated and dropped the sheep’s legs. She rolled the animal onto its side with her boot and began to gather the flat black stones, careful not to disturb the existing cairns. Time passed, or maybe no time at all, and her cairn was up to her knees.
In the inky blue dark she stumbled on the uneven slope back to the car. When she was halfway up, bear-walking the wet rocks with her hands, a cry echoed in the valley behind her.
She froze and turned her head.
A gray overgrown sheep was standing at a cairn. Her cairn.
She could make out the body of the sheep she hit at its feet.
Then, through the fog, another sheep emerged.
Then another from behind a boulder.
A pair climbed from a fissure in the ground. They kept coming and soon there were so many that they ringed fully around the cairn and the corpse. They stood stoic against the dark and the intensifying sheets of rain and Carrie climbed faster.
The wind howled. In its cry Carrie heard a chorus of sheep in the tens of thousands, the distressed bleats of every thing brought to this rocky outcropping of salt and ice that did not belong.
By the time she got back in her car and turned on the American pop radio station and woke up her GPS, the valley floor was no longer visible through the rain.
Lucas McMillan is a student in the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in The Oklahoma Review, Forge and Gravel Literary Journal.