The Midwest |


by Shannon Rabong

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

When the old church burned down, Father Jakobsson was forced to hold service in the abandoned movie theater.  Which would have been bad enough, even if the theater hadn't been twinned in the years before its closure.  A paper-thin partition, dressed in blue felt, dimpled by wall sconces, divided the wide house into a narrow duplex.  The acoustics were terrible, and more than once as Father Jakobsson was speaking from the low stage that passed for a pulpit, he caught members of the congregation gazing vacantly at the makeshift barrier as though wishing they were on the other side enjoying an early matinee.  Work on the new church was slow to start—there were insurance claims and zoning ordinances and fundraising issues.  At times he despaired of ever getting out of the theater, and he contemplated having the old Wurlitzer reinstalled so at least the congregation wouldn't be deprived of an organ.   Once construction began, on a new site in the lot that had formerly been occupied by the rail station, he was to be overheard whistling church hymns while browsing the produce aisle or standing in line at the post office.  He was, in fact, humming his favorite bars of A Mighty Fortress is Our God  while preparing a sermon on the providence of nature—most of the congregation being farmers or married to farmers or related to farmers—when the contractor called to say they had found something.

"Bigger than a breadbox?" Father Jakobsson asked, twirling the phone cord around his hand and running his thumb over the coils like a rosary.  Though he was Evangelical Lutheran, not Catholic, he wouldn't be offended by the association.  He liked to think of himself as progressive—he wasn't opposed to birth control or civil unions.  But he couldn't abide cordless phones.  Two days before he had been caught behind Elín Eyvindsdóttir idling through the town's lone stoplight in her brother's hand-me-down Escort as she scrolled through her text messages, and he had to repress the urge to lay on his horn. 

"It looks like a ship." 

Askja, Iowa, known locally as I-Ask-ja, was, to the dismay of its inhabitants, twenty-five miles from the nearest body of water, a narrow tributary to the Mississippi called the Skunk.  Perhaps that's why the displaced Icelanders who originally settled the town named it after one of the most inaccessible portions of their home country—an area later used by the Apollo program to prepare astronauts for lunar missions—or that's how the joke ran.  (Why would anyone make a home here, I-Ask-ja?)  The Skunk was less than a football field wide at its widest point and so shallow that a grown man could stand in the center without the water reaching over his head.  Nothing larger than a johnboat had ever been seen to grace its surface.  Nonetheless, the curved timbers that jutted up from the pitted turf of the cordoned-off worksite like some deranged Norseman's notion of a teepee unmistakably formed the prow of a boat.  Not some dugout canoe or rustic sloop, but a full-fledged longship. 

"What the holy hell?" Father Jakobsson said, examining the mud-encrusted knob at the peak of the structure, which, when he canted his head, assumed the shape of a dragon.  "What the goddamn?" 

"I know, right?" 

The contractor, Magnús Magnússon, hadn't wanted to call the Father.  What with the dispute over the zoning ordinances (the city planner had told them if they wanted to enlarge the church—which was clearly necessary, the original structure having been built when the town had a quarter of the current population—they'd have to increase the available parking, but they couldn't exceed the original perimeter of the lot, since the area where the church was located was designated a commercial district) and the subsequent move to the new location, they were two months late getting started, and Magnús had been forced to turn a more lucrative job in Rivertown over to that mudlark, Ernie Danvers.  He'd cut the church a deal on the estimate because his wife, Gerdi, was devout, but that hadn't prevented her from turning the cold shoulder when he missed his son Oddi's Little League debut to put in extra hours.  So when one of the men struck something solid with the backhoe, Magnús's first thought had been, Might as well move to the couch.  He was so anxious to get on with the job that the mere absence of noise, the abnormal stillness of the heavy machinery, had him completely distracted, and he didn't catch what the Father said. 


"Keep digging.  There's no reason to put a halt to the work until we see what we have here." 

Magnús sucked in his breath.  He'd never before had the misfortune of stumbling onto a historic site, but every contractor knew there were steep fines for failing to report a find.  It was a developer's nightmare.  Once they contacted the authorities, construction would be halted indefinitely, and he couldn't take on a new job while he was still under contract with the church.  But if he continued digging, he could conceivably lose his building license. 

The Father sensed his hesitation.  "I take full responsibility."  He looked at Magnús sideways, his unplucked eyebrows bristling like a hedgerow.  "Probably best not to mention it to anyone else though." 


By the time Magnús got home it was well after dark.  Oddi, his feet tucked beneath a mound of throw pillows, was curled up on the couch fast asleep.  Under Magnús's direction, the crew had continued digging until they had uncovered most of the hull.  The ship was completely intact.  But for the clods of dirt which clung to the timbers like barnacles, it looked as though it could put to sea tomorrow.  Magnús gathered together the men and instructed them not to whisper a word until he had further consulted with the Father.  They'd been careful not to damage the ship, but Magnús still felt like a civilian tampering with a crime scene. 

"You ought to be ashamed."

Gerdi clouted him on the shoulder with one of the pillows that had been piled at Oddi's feet.  She'd been at Tinna's playing bridge when Oddi called her on the cell she'd given him for emergencies.  Magnús had promised to pick him up after practice and take him out for pizza and ice cream (the Dairy Queen in Centerville was selling sundaes in miniature batting helmets and Oddi only needed the Astros and Marlins to complete his collection).  Gerdi hadn't liked her hand, and when she got off the phone, she deliberately set her cards down face up.  Tinna flashed her a we'll-talk-later over the table and ushered her to the door.  Oddi sat in the dugout all alone, his rubber cleats barely brushing the ground as his legs switched back and forth.  On the way over Gerdi had thought to sell him on DiGiorno and Haagen-Dazs, but when he climbed into the car and dropped his mitt onto the floor, she drove straight to the DQ.  Magnús still wasn't home when they got back, so she let Oddi watch a Battlestar Galactica marathon on the Sci-Fi channel while she dialed Tinna. 

"Something came up," Magnus said.

"Something more important than your promise to your son?" 

Magnús ducked his head.  It was the same gesture Oddi used when she asked him if he'd taken out the trash.  Gerdi had an urge to bark, "Go to your room!"  But she struggled to maintain a stern face when Magnús scooped Oddi up in his arms, scattering pillows over and around the coffee table, and bore him up the stairs like a sack of unmixed cement. 


Once he was certain Gerdi was asleep, Magnús peeled back the covers and eased off the mattress.  Even if Gerdi awoke, he knew, she wouldn't question what he was doing.  Questioning would mean breaking the steady silence she had maintained since he'd put Oddi to bed.  He pulled on his pants and carried his shirt and boots out the door, getting dressed in the hallway before slipping back into Oddi's room.  You could say this for the boy, he was a sound sleeper.  Magnús had to shake his shoulder several times before he reluctantly cracked a lid. 

Magnús refused to explain where they were going.  Oddi stared out the window, trying to determine their destination from their route.  It wasn't a long drive.  Nothing in Askja was too far from anything else. 

As they neared the site, Magnús's grip tightened on the wheel.  The dirt road the crew had been using as a parking lot overflowed with cars.  Magnús had to park a quarter of a mile away, and Oddi, still in uniform (minus the cap, which laid discarded on the kitchen table, its brim smeared with a combination of infield dirt and hot fudge), struggled to match stride as Magnús marched down the center of the road, taking note of make and model. 

Half the town huddled around the ship.  Someone had lit some tiki torches and planted them beside the hull.  Mosquitoes dove in and out of the light and extinguished themselves with audible hisses.  The people spoke in hushed whispers as though they were already within a church.  He ought to be angry, but looking at the ship in the glow of the torches, Magnús  understood this wasn't a secret that could be kept.  In the flickering light the ship had the same splendor as the serpent it was meant to represent.  He could envision it cutting through waves to the chant of a scald with a hundred warriors bristling spears upon its back. 

"What is it?" Oddi whispered. 

"A relic," someone said.  That seemed obvious; the ship wasn't something that had been buried last week. 

"A funerary ornament," someone answered.  Similar ships had been found in burials in Norway and Denmark, to say nothing of Sutton Hoo.  But the Icelanders who had settled Askja were only distantly descended from Vikings and they hadn't come by ship. 

"Skidbladnir," a hoarse voice croaked. 

All eyes fixed on the widow Runólfsdóttir.  Her given name was Katrín, but no one living remembered it.  She'd inherited Ari Hallvardson's property when he was found frozen huddled in a haystack after the Armistice Day storm of 1940.  Since then the widow Runólfsdóttir had worked the property herself.  She'd had plenty of suitors at first, but she'd turned them all away without inviting them in the door.  Remarkably, she'd prospered, buying adjacent fields until she'd doubled her husband's property.  She'd been hiring out the work to the Steinsson boys for the last several years, barely stepping foot outside the house for anything other than groceries.  The children said she was a witch. 

"Don't be ridiculous," Father Jakobsson said, pushing through the throng.  This is what he had to deal with.  The old stories were just as familiar to his parishioners as the words of the Bible, a magic ship that could go wherever it wanted and be folded up and tucked into a pocket just as tangible as Noah's Ark.  "Stop that!" 

Oddi had approached the ship and was cautiously stretching his hand towards the head of the dragon.  Magnús pulled him back by the collar of his jersey. 


The next day there was a town meeting.  They had to hold it in the high school gymnasium to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.  Theories abounded about the origin of the ship.  Some thought it must be the burial spot of an important person, perhaps even the founder of the town.  Nevermind that the town's founder, Sigurd Tietsson, was buried in a marked grave on a family plot near the Tietssons' home.  They argued that the discovery of the ship suggested an earlier origin for Askja, an argument the Tietssons vehemently rejected.  Others, seizing on the idea that the exact location of the ship must be significant, theorized that it had been buried beneath the old train station as a benediction—a signature of the changing times, one mode of transportation giving way to another. 

Another faction claimed the location of the ship was more rightly connected to the current construction of the church, though whether that association was positive or negative was another point of debate.  The widow Runólfsdóttir, dressed outlandishly in a black twill skirt and a black knitted jacket with a black tail cap on her head, said it was a sign that the people had fallen from the old ways, as was the burning of the old church, and that no new church should be built.  Father Jakobsson rejected that notion and said that it was a happy coincidence, but could be interpreted as a commentary on the fusion of the old faith and the new (the new being, paradoxically, Christianity, which predated the traditional Norse beliefs by several centuries).  Still others saw the ship as clear evidence that an inland sea had once existed where now there were only fertile fields, or at least that there had at one time been a clear passage from the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, all the way down the Mississippi, which must have flowed then on a different course. 

"All of this is very interesting," said Ulf Vagnsson, the city planner, "but it's utterly beside the point." 

Ulf had been listening with a mixture of bemusement and horror as the townsfolk belabored the origin of the ship.  He found their stories of Viking burials and magical ships mildly entertaining but was disturbed by their lack of focus.  Clearly, the issue wasn't where the ship came from but what to do about it.  And just as clearly, it wasn't an issue for them to decide, but rather something to be reported to the proper authorities.  Who those authorities might be wasn't immediately clear to him.  Did Iowa have a Department of Antiquities?  Maybe the state university.  In any event, there was a correct procedure to be followed, and plodding around with a tractor wasn't it. 

The Father objected, of course.  What else was new?  He'd been butting heads with Ulf for the better part of the year, as though the town's zoning ordinances had been created just to thwart him.  You'd think a man of the cloth, of all people, would understand the need for order.  That's why they called it organized religion.  Did he want everyone to go back to robbing and pillaging and meeting out justice with an axe?  Who, the Father wanted to know, was Ulf to decide how they should proceed?  No one, Ulf said.  That was precisely the point.  Everyone was free to do whatever they wanted, but Ulf was going to report the find to the relevant authorities, and they would decide what to do about the ship.  And the people who uncovered it.  That took the starch out of them.  The discussion went on, but without the previous energy, and gradually people began to trickle out of the gym. 


Father Jakobsson was the last to leave.  He took the long route back to his house, bypassing the stoplight, and looping in front of the theater.  The sign on the marquee read:



It seemed like years ago that he had been wobbling above the stepladder.  Had it actually been two days?  A passerby had asked if that was a compound sentence or a double feature.  No one took him seriously.  In another year they would be laughing at him on the street.  And it would be another year.  At the meeting Magnús Magnússon had stood and said if they couldn't get back to work by the end of summer, there was no way they could complete construction before winter set in, and they couldn't work once the snow began to fall.  But Ulf Vagnsson had been unbending, smiling and nodding and insisting it was out of his hands.  The thought of his smug condescension so incensed Father Jacobsson that he forgot to thank the cashier at the Amoco after he filled up the car and bought a gallon of gas in a can.  

The Father hadn't always been a father.  Before Pétur Jakobsson had found his calling, he'd had a few brushes with the law.  The first, when he was thirteen, for stealing thirty-seven lawn ornaments—specifically, the wooden cutouts of women bending over that had been so popular in the late eighties—and relocating them to the front lawn of Hal Draummansson, the school principal; the last, on his sixteenth birthday, when he leaned out the passenger window of his brother's rusted-out Z28 and decapitated sixteen mailboxes with a Louisville Slugger, one of which belonged to Judge Samuelsson, who, rather than recusing himself, sentenced Pétur to six weeks in juvie.  The turning point came when Pétur was released back into the custody of his parents, and his mother volunteered him to be an attendant for Father Gudmundsson.  Once his mother dropped him off in the narthex, Pétur, who had never been much for attending church, flatly told the Father not to expect much in the way of cooperation.  Father Gudmundsson smiled beneficently and said, "You're free to do as you like, but I could use some assistance in the undercroft."  He led Pétur to a secluded stairwell that wound into a broad cellar that ran the length of the nave and which housed—along with a fully-stocked wine rack, several stacks of folding chairs, a coil of garden hose, two boxes of hymnals, and an unused pew—a regulation-sized ping pong table.  "I like to play before composing my sermons," Father Gudmundsson said.  "It helps to relax the mind.  But it can be difficult to find a partner."  After trouncing Pétur in three straight games, the Father led him back to his office and invited him to sit in the wing chair as the Father settled behind his desk.  Father Gudmundsson removed a sheaf of notebook paper from a drawer, tapped it twice on the blotter, and set it in front of him.  "Now, where should we begin?"  Pétur, who was seldom even entrusted to go to the blackboard during algebra, was gobstruck.  "Well, what do you talk about with your friends?" Father Gudmundsson asked.

The ping pong table had been a charred husk after the fire, recognizable only by the metal clamps that affixed the net to the table, and Father Jacobsson had been deprived of the last reminder of the first man to treat him as an equal.  It was that blackened lump that hovered before his eyes when he slipped out of the house near three in the morning and navigated the sleeping streets of Askja.  There wasn't a single car parked along the gravel road beside the worksite.  Father Jacobsson sat for a long time behind the wheel, listening without  comprehension to the conversation of the crickets.  He cautiously shouldered open the door and left it ajar, slipping under the yellow rope that had been strung around the grounds, the gas can clutched low at his side.  It was a moonless night and several times he stumbled over ruts that the tractors had gouged into the earth.  When he came to the clearing, he fumbled in his pocket for the lighter he had used to ignite the candelabra in the old church.  It was the same silver Zippo he'd lifted from the tobacco store in Rivertown many years before on a dare from his brother.  His hand shook as he tried to light the torch,and he set the gas can on the ground so he could use the other hand to steady his wrist.  The torch sputtered, went out, and whooshed into flame.  Father Jacobsson shielded his eyes.  He blinked.  The ship was gone. 


The researchers who later came to the site would say that once the ship was exposed to the air, it was a matter of time before it fell apart.  If it didn't stay wet, the evaporating water molecules would literally tear it to shreds.  A few of those who had been present when the ship was uncovered pointed out that the wood hadn't been wet to begin with, but their objections were dismissed as amateur misconceptions.  The researchers had never heard of a find decomposing without a trace, but they had never heard of a ship being buried 1000 miles from the ocean.  Probably it was a hoax.  Or a prop from a school play.  Ulf Vagnsson called for an investigation, but there was no evidence of criminal behavior.  And if there had been a theft, it was unclear whose property had been stolen.  Hadn't it been Ulf who argued that the ship was the proper concern of higher authorities, and if those higher authorities weren't interested in pursuing the case, why should the city, with its limited resources, do any different? 

"Those who go seeking for the Lord will never find Him," Father Jacobsson said from the pulpit the following Sunday, "but those who welcome Him into their hearts, will find He never deserts them."  It was a rambling sermon, full of contradictions, whose central message seemed to be that God's will was inscrutable but his plan undeniable, or else that the greatest rewards could come from the gravest mistakes. 

Gerdi's mind wandered.  Since the disappearance of the ship, Magnus hadn't been late from work once, but he'd begged off attending service, saying he wanted to survey the grounds before the "bonediggers" came.  If it wasn't one thing, it was another.  He was worse than Oddi, who, with one miniature batting helmet left to collect, had abruptly lost interest in the entire business.  His new obsession was a purple hoodie, which he wore absolutely everywhere.  He'd even insisted on wearing it to the service, refusing to don the shirt and tie she'd laid out for him with fierce determination, until she'd reluctantly let him have his way, reasoning that in the context of the theater, the rules of decorum could be relaxed.  Gerdi slapped his wrist to get him to stop fiddling with whatever it was he'd concealed in his pouch.  She shifted her eyes to the near wall, a flimsy divider better suited to an office.  Her parents had brought her here to see Olivia Newton John in Xanadu; it was the last picture they'd shown before splitting the theater.  She'd been the same age then that Oddi was now.  Everyone had turned out, even the Widow Runólfsdóttir, and they'd had to open the balcony to accommodate all of the people.  Oh, how she'd loved the pictures!  Every time they went to a movie, it was like entering another world.  In the theater, anything was possible.  At first Gerdi was caught up in the hubbub—the heady scent of the popcorn, the filmy texture of the butter on her fingers, the restless patter of the people in the row behind her—but then the curtains opened and the houselights dimmed and she sank into the picture.