Jóhann was the first to stand up when the phone rang. He was glad for the interruption. His in-laws were over for dinner and they’d been talking politics. They were finishing their coffee, along with pieces of expensive dark chocolate that Ella, his wife, had arranged on a decorative plate. He’d just gotten the kids in bed and hurried into the hall to answer before the ringing aroused their curiosity. “Hello!”
There was someone on the line. He heard breathing, but no voice. “Hello?” he repeated, stretching out the “o” as though expecting an echo.
“Jóhann? Hey. It’s me,” said his brother on the other end of the line.
“Hi. What’s up?” He turned in the doorframe, waved to get Ella’s attention, and pointed to his coffee cup, which was going cold on the table. She got up and brought the cup over to him, and he squeezed the receiver between his ear and shoulder while silently mouthing “Thank you!” She stood next to him, waiting with a concerned wrinkle on her forehead until he gently patted her bare upper arm to send her back to her parents, shutting the living room door behind her.
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” said his brother’s voice from the depths of the receiver.
“No, no. We’re just finishing dinner.” He lifted his cup and took a sip. Ella and her parents took their coffee black and drank it from tiny cups. He smirked as he pinched the doll-like handle. “Ella’s parents came over for dinner, but we’ve eaten—just having coffee now.”
The line went silent. He wondered if Böddi had been drinking. “What’s up?” he said again, setting the cup and saucer down on the laminated phone directory, which was lying unopened on the buffet. Who still used a phone directory? he thought, as he waited for his brother to speak.
“Marion’s gone,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “She left.”
Jóhann tilted his head back toward the wall until the top of his head was touching the cold cement.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“She’s gone. I came home from work and she was gone.”
“Have you tried calling her cell?”
“No. If she wants to leave, what do I care?”
Jóhann closed his eyes. Opened them again. On the corkboard over the buffet there was a motley assortment of paper scraps with scribbled phone numbers, flyers, postcards, and photos. Family photos—mostly of Ella and the kids. There were pictures from vacations on sunny beaches abroad and camping trips around the country. There was only one picture of him. In it, he was sitting on a white plastic stool on the veranda in front of a cabin they’d rented a few years ago. His legs were crossed, and he was holding a green can of Tuborg, looking off at something in the distance. The color had faded; it was as bleached and pale as late-afternoon sunshine.
“Where’re you at?” he asked.
“At a bar, outside having a cigarette,” said his brother. “I had to get out of the house for a bit.”
“Okay,” said Jóhann. “Had you two been fighting or something?”
“Nah. Yeah, maybe a little. She’d been in such a weird mood lately. I came home and she was gone.”
“What about her stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
“Her stuff. If she left you, then she must have taken some stuff with her. If she didn’t, then maybe she just needed to get away for a bit. Is her stuff gone?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look.”
“Then how do you know she’s gone?” asked Jóhann, trying to sound calm. Positive, like maybe this was all just a misunderstanding. “Maybe she went out to run an errand and got held up. Maybe something happened.”
There was a heaviness in Böddi’s voice and Jóhann didn’t press the matter further. He held the phone close to his ear and thought about his brother as he stared at the corkboard on the wall and the photos of his family, and more particularly, the picture of himself sitting on the veranda outside the rented summer cabin, sipping a beer and watching the way the sunset illuminated the mountain on the other side of the valley.
“Ugh, I feel bad bugging you,” said the voice on the phone wearily. “I just needed to talk to somebody.”
“No, of course,” said Jóhann. “We’re brothers, man.” He felt like an idiot as soon as he said it. It was the kind of thing that shouldn’t have to be said. “Do you want me to pick you up?” he asked by way of redeeming himself.
“No, just stay with Ella and them. I don’t want to drag you out in this weather. I just needed to calm down a little. I feel better now.”
“Are you sure? It’s no problem.”
“Nah, it’s fine. I’m gonna go home anyway.”
“Okay. You’ll take a taxi, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
They said goodbye and Jóhann hung up, stood quietly in the hall for a moment thinking about his brother and sister-in-law and their marriage.
It was silent when he came back into the living room. He sat at the table and noticed that Ella and her parents were staring at him. Anger welled up inside him. He was sure they’d been listening to his phone call.
“Who was that?” asked Ella. She smiled. She knew who’d been on the phone, no question.
“My brother,” he said.
“Everything okay?” she asked, but he wasn’t going to get into it right now, not in front of his in-laws, and so he just said yes and asked if there was more coffee.
They didn’t mention the phone call again until late that night, after her parents had left and he’d put the dishes in the sink to soak with a promise to himself that he’d do them before he went to work the next morning. She’d done the cooking, so it was his job to do the dishes—it was one of the many good-natured pacts they made with one another every day. They were getting into bed when she started quizzing him about the phone call. He told her what had happened as he undressed but lost his cool when she asked him for details he hadn’t thought to weasel out of his brother. He stood in front of her, half-naked, and threw up his hands. “I don’t know!” he shouted. “I wasn’t cross-examining him!” Their voices got louder and louder, but in the end, they managed to check themselves. Moments later, they were in bed, curled up under the duvet and holding each other tight.
The next day, he left work early to visit his brother. He’d tried to reach him a few times during the day, both on his landline and his cell. He’d also called the office where his brother worked, but as he’d expected, Böddi had taken a sick day.
There was snow on the sidewalk and the cars on the street. Old, dirty snow that had been blanketing the city for several days. Jóhann parked and gingerly picked his way across the sheet of ice covering the driveway. His brother lived in a basement apartment that you entered from the back garden. The steps down to his door were slick with ice.
It took Böddi a long time to come to the door. Jóhann alternated between ringing the bell and knocking on the matte glass. Finally, it opened, and Böddi stood in the doorway in a bathrobe and sweats, fuzzy slippers on his feet. He filled the entrance, even though he was stooped over. He was too big to live in such a small basement apartment. Like a troll under a bridge, thought Jóhann. He remembered how big his brother seemed when he stood next to Marion. She was from the Philippines and barely reached his shoulder. The brothers greeted one another, and Böddi turned on his heel and went back into the apartment with Jóhann trailing behind him.
It had been a long time since he’d been in his brother’s apartment. They usually only saw each other when Böddi came over to his and Ella’s for dinner. He’d always sit between the kids. Their giant uncle was a great favorite with Jói and Helga. They’d talk over one another, trying to tell him all the remarkable happenings that made up their school days, and after dinner they could always sweet-talk Uncle Böddi into swinging them around in circles or letting them airplane on the soles of his feet. After Böddi and Marion got married, she accompanied him to these family dinners. Jóhann could see her influence wherever he looked in the apartment. In the white Christmas lights draped around the mirror in the foyer and the small framed pictures of flowers sprinkled across the living room wall. There were also framed photos of Böddi and Marion and of her family in the Philippines. Much to Jóhann’s surprise, he also saw a picture of his own family that he recognized as an old Christmas card. He couldn’t imagine Böddi making the trip to buy a frame for it. He’d have made do with sticking it up on the wall or sliding it under a fridge magnet. It must have been Marion.
He started thinking about the many small changes he and Ella had noticed in Böddi’s behavior since he got married. Birthday presents for the kids were wrapped in colorful paper with pretty ribbons. He’d stopped going around in shirts with holes at the elbows and was always clean-shaven. Marion didn’t like the way his stubble scratched her face when they kissed, he’d told Jóhann with a roguish smile. Ella had even gotten a bouquet at work when she got a big promotion. The flowers were accompanied by a card with congrats from Böddi and Marion. The card itself was rather unusual. There was a picture of a dark-clad, kneeling woman on the front, golden rays shining around her head. Inside, above Marion’s neat handwriting and Böddi’s clumsy signature, were two lines of poetry printed in a language that Ella thought might have been Latin. They never figured out what the card said but were touched by the trouble Marion had taken and thanked her for her thoughtfulness the next time she and Böddi came to dinner.
The brothers sat at the kitchen table. The little basement window above them cast a gray light over the kitchen cabinets. Böddi pushed an empty pizza box aside on the table and offered coffee. “I only have instant,” he said. He turned on the tap to fill the electric kettle, but the sink was full of dishes and the water ran over the dirty plates and down onto the floor. He swore, shifted the pile of plates in the sink, and dried the wet spot by rubbing his fuzzy slipper over the puddle.
“I tried calling you,” said Jóhann while they waited for the kettle.
“I called your office. They told me you were home sick.”
His brother turned around with a coffee mug in each hand. “What did you say to them?” he asked, putting the cups on the table and spooning coffee powder into each before opening the fridge and taking out a carton. The sugar bowl was already on the table. Both brothers favored milky, sweet coffee.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“I’ve used all my vacation days,” said his brother as he poured water out of the whistling kettle.
They took a moment to liberally sugar their coffee.
“I wish you wouldn’t have called my work,” said Böddi. “They might think something’s up.”
“Your phone was off.”
“It’s not like your job—I can’t just leave whenever I want and say I’m working from home.”
“That’s not what my job is like. I’m sure they didn’t think anything of me calling.”
“I just needed a little time to myself. I think it should be okay for me to call in sick like this, just this one time. My wife left me.”
“Okay,” said Jóhann, trying to calm his brother down. “I didn’t say anything.” They took another sip of their coffee and Jóhann asked: “Have you heard from her?”
“No,” said Böddi. He stirred his coffee, swirled his spoon around his cup, then dropped it on the table with a clatter. “I haven’t tried to get ahold of her.”
“Where do you think she is?”
“Don’t know. Probably with some girlfriend. I don’t know any of them. Maybe she just went back home.”
“But your phone’s been off. Maybe she’s been trying to call you.”
Böddi was in no mood for hypotheticals. “She left, okay?” he said, looking sharply at Jóhann. “She’s gone.”
Jóhann gave up. He spooned more sugar into his cup to try and disguise the bitter flavor of the coffee powder.
“How are the kids?” asked Böddi suddenly.
“Just fine. Jói graduated from kindergarten the other day.”
“Oh yeah? It’s been forever since I saw them.”
“It was actually kind of funny. They had a ceremony and everything. It’s just kindergarten, right? But the kids loved it. Helga’s a full-blown teenager now. Can’t abide a word we say. We’re so lame, you know.”
“They’re great kids.”
“I’d always hoped that Marion and I would have kids, too. Then Jói and Helga could’ve babysat for us and we could’ve all gone on holiday together and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, that would’ve been fun,” said Jóhann, trying not to let himself get pulled into his brother’s daydreams. But he couldn’t stop himself from adding: “You never know. Maybe you guys will get back together.”
“No. No, I don’t think so,” said his brother. His eyes were deep-set in his broad face. Such sensitive eyes. Jóhann remembered how Böddi used to flit them around when they were young and went to dances together, as if he were certain that someone somewhere in the room was making fun of him.
“How’s Ella?” asked Böddi.
“She’s fine. Busy at work.” It had been nearly a month since Ella had taken Böddi aside at a dinner and told him he had to stop calling Jóhann when he’d been drinking. She told Jóhann about the conversation the night after. Another person would have let it be. Not Ella—that wasn’t her style. She didn’t care for the silence surrounding the brothers and their family. Her people talked about everything. They yelled at the top of their lungs and said what needed saying. Jóhann couldn’t stand the way her parents and siblings fought in front of just anyone—and always the same bones to pick. He didn’t see the point of expending so much volume and energy, getting worked up about things that were never going to change. You loved the people you loved, and you had to take them the way they were.
That being said, he was upset when Ella told him about her conversation with Böddi. They got into a tremendous argument and, since the kids were staying over at Ella’s parents’ place for the night, didn’t hesitate to lay into one another. It was supposed to have been date night for the two of them—candles, good wine, and good food—but instead, Jóhann stormed out for a walk by himself. It’s what he did when he needed to calm himself down. When he got back, she’d opened the wine and started cooking. He set the table without a word and lit the candles in the tall, slender candlesticks on the table. They sat and ate in silence, slowly working their way through the bottle and taking turns refilling each other’s glasses. At the end of the meal, he lay his hand in the middle of the table, palm upturned on the white tablecloth, and she interlaced her fingers with his. He could never find the words to tell her how grateful he was for her incredible strength, for how protective she was of him and the kids. In the twilight of their bedroom, he rested his head on her breast like a small child.
“You two are lucky to have found one another,” said Böddi. “You’re such a good match.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Jóhann. “You and Marion were good together, too,” he added, but Böddi shook his head.
“Nah, not like you two. We’d never even met until a week before we got engaged. Just texted and video-chatted.”
Jóhann nodded and tried to conceal his curiosity. It had been almost two years since Böddi came over after work. Jóhann was home by himself. Ella was at the gym and the kids at their music lessons. Böddi had come by with a late birthday present for his nephew, and while the brothers were sitting at the kitchen table with their coffee, he suddenly revealed that he had a girlfriend who he’d met online and was going to visit in Manila. Jóhann hardly knew what to say. So he took a sip of his coffee and said, “Whoa!” and congratulated his brother. When Böddi came back to Iceland a month later, he was engaged.
They were hesitant at first, he and Ella. Unsure of who was taking advantage of whom—Marion or Böddi. But after they met Marion and saw the effect she had on him, saw the way he acted around her, they decided that maybe this was the best thing for both of them. Marion was earnest and cheerful and coddled Böddi like a child. She was short and stocky, and whenever she and Böddi came over for dinner, she always found a way to pitch in with the meal prep, always helped with the clearing and washing up while Böddi sat with his coffee. It reminded Jóhann of their father, how he’d linger over his coffee while their mother hovered around him. Marion spoke English well but with a heavy accent and strange inflection. They all spoke English at the dinner table so as not to leave her out, but she told them often that she’d rather they speak their mother tongue. “To help me learn,” she said, in her broken Icelandic. She diligently attended a number of Icelandic classes where she met people from all over the world. Sometimes, she wouldn’t catch all of what Jóhann and Ella said, but it didn’t seem to bother her—she just smiled and shrugged and leaned back in her chair to let them know that she didn’t understand. It did, however, bother Böddi. He’d start fidgeting and then lean over to whisper an explanation in her ear.
“It was one of those dating sites,” said Böddi in the dusky kitchen. “It gave you all these pictures and names and hobbies and stuff like that. Pictures of men who were looking for wives, too. You could click on someone and message them. I looked at what some of the other men were writing about themselves, just to get an idea, you know? And some of them were pretty disgusting. Talking about what kind of women they wanted. Sizes and stuff.” The words flowed out of him in a torrent, as if he were relieved to finally spill his guts.
“What’d you say about yourself?” asked Jóhann, which made his brother squirm. “Just, uh, you know. The normal stuff. I wrote about who I was—my hobbies and work and stuff like that. Said I wanted to meet a good woman. A good-hearted woman.” He hesitated and then said: “People think that it’s some kind of trafficking operation, that these women are being bought. But it’s not like that. There’s no money in it—just people who want to meet each other and try to build a life together. Some of these girls, there’s not a lot for them there, and they want to get away and have a husband and a family. And most of the men are just guys like me who missed the chance to meet a woman and start a family when they were younger.”
Jóhann was uneasy listening to his brother. No one in the family ever talked about how Böddi and Marion met. He’d always thought they were all just being polite, but now he wasn’t so sure.
“Is that how it was with Marion? She wanted to get away?” he asked, surprising himself with his own nosiness.
“Yeah, actually,” said his brother. “It wasn’t a bad thing, really. She wanted to live her own life. Didn’t want to live with her mother forever and couldn’t see getting married there. She didn’t have enough money to buy her own apartment, and it’s hard to rent as a single person. Not a lot available. Most people only want to rent to couples and families.”
“So she just decided to come here instead?”
“Yeah. She was tired of Cavite, felt like she was stuck there. That’s the city she lived in, a little city across the bay from Manila. When I went to visit her, we met in Manila and took the ferry over. She had her aunt with her to make sure nothing happened. When we finally managed to talk together in private, away from the aunt, Marion said she was looking at this whole thing as an adventure. She said we were going on an adventure together.”
He fell silent and looked at Jóhann.
“We knew what we were doing,” he said. “We knew we weren’t in love—not yet, at least. We thought that would come later. That together, we’d cultivate a love. I met her family. They’re really good people, the lot of them. Her dad’s dead, but I talked to her mom. She asked about my job and my apartment. Whether I owned a car. She was making sure I could take care of her daughter, you know? Her mom told me that she and Marion’s father had gotten married because their families wanted them to. They knew almost nothing about one another when they got married but cultivated a love between themselves. Just like we intended to do.”
The phrase “cultivated a love” sounded odd coming out of Böddi’s mouth, and Jóhann realized he was repeating something Marion had said, or—maybe more likely—something Marion’s mother had said to the two of them. It was a phrase that bore traces of sorrow and desperation; a mother’s dearest wish as she watched her daughter sail away with a strange man.
The brothers sat for a long time talking about Böddi’s trip to Manila, and about Marion. Böddi said he’d been taken with her as soon as he saw her picture on the dating site. That he’d recognized her by her smile the moment he’d gotten off the plane. He’d read what she’d written about herself on her profile and thought she seemed smart and self-assured. More mature than the other girls on the site, even if she was ten years younger than him. When they met the first time, they were silent and shy, like teenagers on their way to their first dance, her elderly aunt trailing behind them. After she agreed to marry him, there was a party with all her relatives. It was their last day together before he went home to Iceland to wait for her. Böddi called it a barbecue, but if his descriptions were anything to go by, it had been a much grander affair. He and Marion had sat side by side, surrounded by her family and holding hands under the table while people brought them grilled food on paper plates.
Listening to how his brother and sister-in-law met, Jóhann realized that Böddi had been waiting for an opportunity to tell someone this story for a long time. Had, in fact, told it to himself again and again until he’d perfected it. It was the story of the great romantic adventure that he and Marion had embarked upon together. But he seemed to have forgotten certain episodes or simply skipped over them altogether.
The phone calls began some months after they married, not long after Marion started making her own friends in Iceland. People in her Icelandic classes and other women from the Philippines who had come to Iceland to marry Icelandic men. Böddi had called Jóhann and complained that Marion wanted him to meet these girlfriends of hers and their husbands. They regularly made plans to meet at each other’s homes, traded off hosting dinner parties, and even rented out a hall and brought Filipino food, rented a band or a DJ, and danced late into the night. Böddi couldn’t stand these gatherings. The women all talked together and laughed, and he couldn’t understand anything. He was stuck with the husbands, who he said were all these loser types. “Sad sacks,” he told Jóhann on the phone. Once he started to refuse to go with her, the calls became long complaints about Marion never being home. She only wanted to be with her friends, not with him. He’d started going to bars, as if to even the score. He wasn’t just going to sit at home waiting for her, you know?
Even though Jóhann had all the background, he still couldn’t bring himself to deny Böddi the romantic image he’d painted of his marriage to Marion, just as during all those phone calls, he let Böddi talk and tried as best he could not to take a stance. He’d rarely thought about how Marion might tell the story of the way she and Böddi met or what she’d say about their marriage, tried to brush such thoughts aside.
As was often the case, he didn’t even really need to be there for the conversation. He nodded along as Böddi talked, making affirmative noises. The fridge door behind Böddi was covered with tickets and flyers and photos held up by decorative magnets. Neither Marion nor Böddi were in any of the photographs. They must have all been sent by her family in the Philippines. They showed newborn babies in their baptismal gowns and little kids in their best clothes. There were pictures from weddings and other such events where the men wore filmy white shirts with starched collars and the women colorful evening dresses. They smiled happily at the camera, as if they were all about to burst out laughing.
“I thought you said all her stuff was gone,” said Jóhann.
Böddi had finished saying his piece and now sat with both hands clasped around his half-drunk coffee mug.
“What?” he said.
Jóhann had a hard time repeating the question, which had popped out of his mouth before he had time to think about it. But he asked again, stammering and mumbling.
“Her stuff. I thought you said that she had taken all her stuff. Yesterday when I talked with you on the phone.”
“Some of her stuff’s gone.”
“She left all her family photos?”
Böddi stared at him. His face, which had been open and happy while he told the story of him and Marion, now shuttered.
“She’s probably going to send for the rest of her things later,” said Jóhann, helpless against the silence that emanated from his brother.
Böddi nodded slowly.
“Yes, that’s probably it.”
Something had changed in the little kitchen. It was getting dark outside. Jóhann sipped his coffee, but it had gone cold. He kept a straight face and finished it anyway.
“Yes, well, I should probably get going,” he said.
“Nice that you could drop by,” said Böddi.
They stood up and clumsily embraced at the end of the table. Böddi followed him to the door. Jóhann shrugged into his jacket and wound his scarf around his neck. He hadn’t taken off his shoes when he came in and now saw that he’d tracked footprints across the floor. He opened the door and turned back to his brother.
“You should go back to work tomorrow,” he said. “Otherwise, they might think something’s up.”
His brother nodded.
Jóhann held the handrail as he walked up the slippery steps. When he looked back, Böddi was standing in the doorway. He was reminded again of a troll living under a bridge. They looked at one another, but neither said nor did anything to indicate that they even knew one another. Then Böddi closed the door.
At a red light on the way home, Jóhann suddenly had a vision of Böddi, walking from room to room in his little apartment, taking down all the photographs and flower prints, pulling clothes out of the bedroom closet, swiping makeup and lotion out of the bathroom cabinet, and stuffing it all into a black garbage bag.
“Eiginmaðurinn og bróðir hans,” from Smáglæpir, © 2017 by Björn Halldórsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.