Dan DiStasio

Ungar and the foxes

“Then what is Life? I said…that cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,

And answered… “Happy those for whom the fold
Of                                            P.B. Shelley 1824


A wondrous fall of liquid energy calms Ungar, as he listens to the cascading water. A roaring symphony of splash and dazzle mutes the lingering beat of the city into quiet submission. His mind wanders over the rocks, down the mountain, along the riverbed, sliding over the rhyolite and the obsidian, skipping along with bits of particles across the plains. Grateful for his time in the country, he starts each day of his winter escape from Reykjavik with a pilgrimage to the waterfall. He hikes there in the morning, soaking up a bit of sun, ignoring the stares of the farmer across the way, a rough-shod man who doesn’t understand poetry—in nature or in life—a sad thing to contemplate surrounded by the quiet beauty of Hrevegarde.

Beside the farmer and his family the area is desolate. Ungar’s hut is closed for winter so no one comes. But he loves this season more than any other time of year. In summertime, he opens the cabin to visitors: hikers, cyclists, curious spirits, young and old, and anyone with a bit of wanderlust.  They travel the dusty roads, bumping over rocks, craning their necks to see Mount Hekla, lugging their bedrolls, crates of food, and backpacks. They line their shoes up, two by two in the entryway, like Noah’s animals each with its own mate, strings flying, tongues hanging out, as if to recover from a long day on the road.

Although he enjoys the excitement of the trekkers, he prefers these quiet winter nights, when darkness is barely interrupted by daylight and the wind whips across fields where sheep huddle and graze. Gone are the crowds of the city. Gone is the horrible news of war and death.  Gone are the symbols of power and greed. How could such things exist in this perfect setting?  He waits patiently for his soup to boil, swirling the vegetables with a long wooden spoon, as the aroma of seasoned broth fills the air.

A scratch upon the door breaks the silence. Ungar walks to the door holding a crust of bread. Through the pane nothing but blackness; still, Ungar feels a presence on the other side of the door. His hand pauses on the doorknob. He opens the door a crack and peers down.
Standing on the stoop is the vixen, beady eyed and brazen. Light frames her figure, the shadow of her rounded ears silhouetted in a box of white light. She lifts her head, studies Ungar, conquering fear, instinct, the need to flee and burrow. He studies her tiny body, shimmering blue and silver in the moonlight. She looks furtively behind her. Beneath the stoop, three small kits huddle together.

Ungar drops a piece of bread to the ground, and she jumps at it, shreds it, eats greedily, then carries the remainder off to her babies. Ungar goes and dips another piece of bread in the broth and brings it to her hiding place beneath the house.  Peering into the dark, he sees nothing but tiny eyes shining like amber. He tears the bread and drops it in pieces near their hiding place. He gets an old towel, a few rags and pushes them gently with his foot beneath the frame of the house. The bleating of a sheep in the distance reminds him of the danger he faces by feeding the family. Arctic foxes are known to bring down sheep when they are hungry and desperate. It is something he does not like to think about.  This is his place of peace. He listens to the wind, feels the coldness on his face. The ground crackles beneath his feet. The only other sound is the click-click of tiny tongues.

The kits grow bigger and bolder. Ungar brings scraps and cups of warm broth under the cover of darkness. He sees them only at night but he is aware of their presence. He knows the mother has taken to roaming, he can tell when they are settled in for the night. After their dinner, he retreats to the warmth of his room, writing poetry until late in the night.

Days, he hikes across the unsettled beauty of the plains, dented with craters and strewn with giant rocks. Cresting the hill, he reaches Haifoss where the kaleidoscope of colors always startles and amazes him.  The long threads of water are candle drippings of ivory and crystal. He watches until the light recedes and the darkness comes. He listens for the hissing of the stars, imagines he can hear their gas escaping like the pounding of a poet’s heart.

The wind dies down to barely a whimper. Ungar settles in his chair reflecting on the verse he has just written. A quiet and private moment blossoms around him like a field of lilies of different heights and hues. He smiles at the fancy of his thought at once grateful and condescending. It always that way with verse, love and hate.

He goes to boil water for a cup of tea, when a firm knock on the front door shatters the silence….bang, bang, bang. The sound reverberates in the hall as he sets his cup aside, and goes to the door.

“You know what I’m about, Ungar,” says Haldor, the longhaired, bearded farmer clutching a large metal shotgun. 

“I don’t take kindly to firearms.” Ungar says, nervous at the sight of a gun.

“Like ‘em or not. I’m here and I’ll  use it, if need be.” Haldor tapped the butt of the gun on the floor.

“You’ll not fire that gun on my property.”

“We’ve told you before. You’ve had your warnings. Now where are they?”

“Find own way if its killing you’ll do,” Ungar said.

“If its killing you’re against, come see my ewe. Her ankle is gnawed and she won’t last the winter.” Haldor stood firmly with one hand on the gun and the other on the door.

“I’ll not have any of it,” Ungar said.

“Have it or not, I’ve got a piece of land and the responsibility to protect it.”

“Killing never protects anyone, way I see it.”

“Then you have a queer sight all holed away by yourself. If you had a family, you might see it differently.”

“Family doesn’t bring my mind around to killing.”

“Enough talk. Where are they?” Haldor looked into the house.

“I’d appreciate it if you take your leave now.” Ungar pushed the door closed.

“Not until I get what I came for.” Haldor put his foot down to keep the door open.

At other times, two men having a normal conversation might not have heard the scratching upon the back door. But the quiet bitterness that settled between the two men had sharpened their senses, and the scratching on the back door thundered through hallway. Haldor pushed at the door, but Ungar blocked his way.

“I may not be able to control what goes on outside, but you’ll not walk a gun into my house.”

“They better not be inside,” Haldor warned.

Ungar closed the door and headed to the back of the house, but as he reached the doorknob, he heard gun fire.

A yelp.

The shots repeated. 




And then….stillness.

Ungar sunk to the floor, shaking, his back against the door. He held his breath until Haldor’s footsteps, crunching over the frozen ground, disappeared. In the distance, a sheep bleated a sad, dumb cry. The scent of his uneaten dinner, cabbage stew, lingered in the air, sour and strong.  He tried not to cry but tears trickled down his cheeks.

He shook his head.

The ground was too cold to dig, but he pushed the spade until it broke the surface. He dug, until the stars disappeared from the night. He worked until his hands were aching with frostbite. He bundled up the fragile bloody carcasses in warm flannel shirts and laid them in the hole. He covered them up with dirt and stood a moment and listened to the wind.

When he was done, he took a lantern and made his way up the dark path to the falls. Morning fought darkness as the sun rose grudgingly. He sat on a rock and watched sparkles of light capture water crystals in midair.  He waited until the silence of the earth returned to its quiet self.  When his body was as cold as a body can be without being dead, he walked back to his hut and slept through the day.

And the next.

And the next.

Until it was time to return to Reykjavik.