not for those who won’t believe it possible
The final run of the Reykjavik Express began on Christmas Eve, 1939, as the dragon of fascism spread its dark wings over Europe. The world was in chaos, and the age of the glamorous gilt carriage was ending. The Express’ devotees grieved, and its last passengers were in mourning. For after that run, the majestic red and gold Art Deco engine and its gleaming cars, steaming along the coastal tracks surrounding the small nation of Iceland, would be but a memory.
It was 6 a.m. on the morning of December 24th as the locomotive, having taken on coal, coupled in shades of steam with the cars of the Express at the platform of Reykjavík station. On the concourse, a palm court ensemble played traditional seasonal music near a tall well-lit and splendidly decorated Christmas tree. Passengers boarded as a light snow fell, and a man with a cart hawked espresso, hákarl and risalamande. The Engineer and Conductor stood at the caboose, smoking.
Elinor Warkentin, famous for her excellent writings on world travel, rumoured to be of Manitoban origins (a town named Grunthal? my goodness!), and believed by many to be an international spy, had, followed closely by a porter, boarded first in what might have been mistaken for an over-enthusiasm for train travel, but was merely to overcome a bout of boredom that had set in as she sat in the station’s waiting lounge.
Once on board, she was pleased to find her cabin, thought to be the most luxurious there was to offer, was an exquisite suite of rooms of mahogany, moss green leather and beveled glass. The porter, a small man named Bergþór, having, placed her carry-on luggage in the proper cupboards, now stood waiting, either for further instructions or his gratuity. Elinor was unsure why he wouldn’t go away, his duty done, before realising what the moment meant.
“Oh,” she said, her tone revealing a dubious opinion of tipping as she opened her purse. Finding the smallest coin she could, she placed it in the porter’s open palm. Bergþór stared at it.
“Yes?” Elinor said. “Is there something wrong?”
“No,” Bergþór sighed. And realising there was little point in irony, he clicked his heels and left the cabin.
More of the first-class passengers boarded soon after Elinor. Notably, a most fashionable couple, Count Jan and Countess Helga of Oslo. With them was a quiet little girl, with green eyes and a head of loose auburn curls, named Gabriel, an orphan who’d the Countess and Count had taken custody. Later, it would be learned that her Mother and Father had died during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Her Father in a gunfight, her Mother by other horrible means. Gabriel and the couple took the suite next to Elinor’s, tipping Bergþór far better in recognition of services.
The next passenger worthy of mention, who took rooms in Elinor’s car, was a mysterious man named Vlad Schröder, grimly dapper with a pencil thin mustache, who described himself as a prominent Director of films in a cult style referred to by experts as Cinema Obscura Nouveau. His valet, who he referred to as his Tattoo Artist, though Vlad Schröder had no visible tattoos, was a sinister looking man who carried a riding crop and wore knee high cordovan boots. His name was Svyatopolk Zima, and he smoked ceaselessly.
The Reykjavik Express left the station at noon that Christmas Eve, shortly after all of the passengers, luggage and mail were aboard. And as it steamed its way out of the city through the orderly, snow covered suburbs, Elinor read a novel, enjoying the rhythmic music of the rails beneath her car.
That evening at dinner, Elinor, the Countess, Count and the little girl, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima, found themselves all seated at the same table.
The dining car was a long splendid room, in shades of plush burgundy with hardwood and shining brass accents, and a fat and festive Christmas tree in the corner. The china was fine, the cutlery true silver, the napkins linen and on the walls were fine silk tapestries.
Their table had been positioned to accommodate them all lengthwise, three on either side. Elinor Warkentin, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima on one side, and the Countess, Count, and the distant little Gabriel on the other.
Once seated and provided with menus by the Maitre‘D, they were greeted by their waiter, a gloomy, perhaps despondent, perhaps utterly hopeless character who stood gravely at their tableside, waiting much too long before he spoke. Then…
“Good evening and Merry Christmas,” he said, “though I find the festive season a cheerless time of wretched desperation. My name is Beauregard, and I’ll be your waiter.”
“Are you well?” said the Count, who’d seen friends and family suffering the gloom of long dark Oslo winters.
“As well as can be expected,” Beauregard said. “Now pay attention while I describe the delights of our Chef’s menu. He’s a bastard, you know, the Chef. French. He spits on foreigners. He spits on me frequently. He can hit me from the far end of the kitchen.
“That’s terrible,” said Elinor.
Beauregard sighed and began to describe the menu items.
“This evening’s soup is a Cream of White Corn with hints of Alsace Foie Gras, though that combination seems an oddity to me.” he said. “The specials are as follows: a Filet du Boeuf Bourguignon with Rigatoni in a Delicate Buttered Fig and Truffle Cream Sauce. There is also a Nova Scotia Salmon in Béarnaise Sauce with carrots, asparagus tips and baby potatoes. Tonight’s special dessert will be a flaming figgy pudding, in light of the festive mood I’m sure you all feel, but that I cannot.”
“Flaming?” said Vlad Schröder, indignantly. “Figgy? Are you being clever? This some veiled insinuation aimed at me and my Tattoo Artist, isn’t it! Why not just come out with it, and say fruity.”
Zima kicked Schröder under the table.
“I’m not nearly clever enough to insinuate anything,” Beauregard said. “My mother told me as much when I was very young, after she’d lost hope I’d grow up to do great things. The rest of this evening’s fare is on the menu, all in English, though I understand your party is international and multilingual. A phenomenon some still might appreciate, in light of the current state of the world. I, however, find it suspicious, and I’m proud to live in a nation that still allows me to say so, by virtue of a tradition of free speech. This is the wine list.” He bent slightly, and handed it to Vlad.
“This should be interesting?” murmured Schröder. Then having scanned the list, ordered two bottles of the Chateau Branaire Ducru Bordeaux, assuming all round the table shared his tastes.
“What do you recommend?” asked Elinor, already taking notes for the article she planned to write. “One of your specials, or is there something on the menu you personally prefer?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Beauregard said. “It all starts to look and taste the same after a while, doesn’t it? Besides, I only get the leftovers at the end of the night, if there are any, maybe an overdone carrot or a bit of fish past its time. If there isn’t anything, I go back to my tiny cabin—so small I hardly fit, I don’t mind telling you, and so cold sometimes I don’t sleep for a week, just lie there shivering—and there I eat stale saltines and the rancid Nutella the Sous-Chef allows me to spirit out of the cupboard.
“Besides,” he said. “to answer your question would demonstrate an improper bias, and infer that I know your tastes better than you know your own.”
“But can we buy you dinner?” Elinor asked. “You could eat it later, in your cabin. Will you be alright? You seem so unhappy. Maybe you need a holiday?”
“Isn’t life already a holiday?” said Beauregard. “Maurice, the Maitre‘D, says it is. I’ll return momentarily to take your orders.”
Just then, Gabriel whispered into Count Jan’s ear, who nodded as she spoke, and then said to Beauregard, “Gabriel wishes to tell you something.”
Beauregard hesitated a moment. Then stepping round the corner of the table, bent to listen to Gabriel speak. It was a short message, spoken so softly that only he could hear, and when Beauregard stood erect again, he smiled kindly at her, with a warmth and elation that didn’t seem possible moments ago.
“Thank you, Gabriel,” he said. “I shall never forget.” Then walked away with a new confidence.
“I like him,” Elinor said.
“He’s a loon,” said Svyatopolk Zima. “We’d have eaten him alive in Berlin.”
This time Schröder kicked Zima on the ankle.
“Stop it!” Elinor snapped, looking from the two of them to Gabriel.
“What’s she going to do,” said Zima, “whisper about our bad behaviour in someone’s ear?”
“What’s this about Berlin?” asked the Count.
“We vacation there. Not for some time, though,” Schröder lied. “Not since that dreadful little man with that ridiculous moustache took over. He likes little boys, I hear.”
“It’s innocent enough,” said Zima. “In Berlin, we indulge in the cocaine and leather scene. There are hard men and soft, whichever’s your taste.”
Now there appeared to be a small war of kicking beneath Zima and Schröder’s table.
“She is a quiet one,” the Countess said, stroking Gabriel’s cheek, “and mysterious, if a child can be called that.
“What’s that mean,” said Zima. “Is she a spy?” He chuckled.
“No, but she was accompanied by a woman, you see, who told the Minister at the Cathedral where we found her that Gabriel had lived with her parents, in a poor neighbourhood in Warsaw. She became an orphan when her Father died fighting and her Mother was shot on the street in front of their tenement by the Nazis. The woman who brought Gabriel to the Cathedral hinted that her Mother was a member of the Armia Krajowa.”
Elinor was intrigued. “Where did you say you found her?” she asked. “What Cathedral?”
“Somehow Gabriel ended up in Oslo. We were made aware of her by an associate, who took us to her in the Oslo Cathedral where she’d been given sanctuary. Our children have moved on into adulthood, and our house is empty. So, we took her into our custody and brought her home.”
“But why?” asked Vlad. “Why not just leave her for the priests?”
“Because her situation seemed so tragic, and magic at the same time,” the Countess said. “It sounds strange when I say it now, but….”
“That isn’t quite right,” said the Count.
“Alright,” the Countess said, smiling softly, “perhaps it was only the circumstances of our meeting her that seemed magic. You see, she was sitting near the altar in the Cathedral. Not in a pew, mind you, but huddled in a corner, reading, where the sun was shining on her, through the stained glass far above. You must understand that the Cathedral is quite ancient, but the blues, purples and reds that fell upon her from above were so pure—subtle yet vibrant at the same time. Seeing her there was simply spell-binding, when she finally looked up at us.”
“What was she reading?” Elinor asked.
“Well,” said the Count, “I think that the image of her, in the that corner, in that light, was only part of what Helga means by our first encounter being magic. You see, she’d somehow gotten her hands on an artefact that was being held in the Cathedral’s vault, a parchment copy of the Vulgate. Specifically, and inexplicably, she was reading a copy of the Apocrypha Gospels. And as we drew closer, we heard her talking quietly, reciting from the text in its original Latin.”
“Impossible,” Vlad said. “She’s Polish, and a child! Your story’s a fake.”
“Yes, so it would seem,” said the Countess. “She is just a child, but it’s true, nonetheless. I’ll also say that in that fine light, her back against the wall, focussing so intently on that text, she seemed to have a halo.”
“That’s simply your impression, my dear,” said the Count. “I didn’t see a halo.”
“And what of the woman who’d accompanied her,” Elinor said. “Wasn’t she responsible for her?”
“We were told by the Minister that she disappeared days before,” said the Count. “She and Gabriel, both, had been granted sanctuary until they could be settled, but one morning it was discovered that the woman had vanished. There was a search. Even the police were involved, but nothing.”
“She was my Mother,” said Gabriel.
The table was silent for a moment.
“This is news,” the Count said.
“But, if she was your mother, why’d she leave you alone?” said Elinor.
“She had to.”
“Because she died,” Gabriel shrugged. “They shot her on the street, like Countess Helga said. It was her Angel that spoke to the Minister in the Cathedral. It was her Angel that brought me there. She said I’d be safe, and then she left. Because angels go where they go.”
The party was impressed by her eloquence.
“This is too much,” said Vlad. He called out for Beauregard to bring cognac.
“Well, how did your mother, her Angel, get you to Oslo?” the Countess said.
“First we walked,” said Gabriel. “But sometimes we were flying. Then there was a sailboat. We sailed for a long time.”
“It must have been awful,” Elinor said.
“It was scary sometimes,” said Gabriel. “The sea was like a street through very tall clouds. Clouds with windows that children and old women with their cats looked out of, as days passed away and we passed by. There were storms as big as the World, and then it was so quiet I couldn’t sleep, because beneath the silence there were songs I didn’t know. But we arrived in Oslo, somehow. When I asked Mother how, she told me that the stars guide Angels, and Angels guide little girls—except that I’m six years old, which really isn’t little.”
“She talks like a politician,” Vlad said, suspiciously.
“Leave her alone,” said Elinor. “She’s a smart kid. Her English just happens to be better than yours. Lord knows how, though.”
“But how could you read Latin?” Zima said.
“I had to,” said Gabriel. “There were things I needed to know.”
“Things?” Elinor said.
“Things about people. Stories are more about the people who write them than the people in the words.”
“She’s scaring me,” said Vlad. “No kid talks like that.”
“I needed to know,” Gabriel said again.
“That copy of the Gospels is very rare,” said the Count. “ The Cathedral Curator said so. And a peculiar choice, too. We still don’t know how she got her hands on it. It was locked up tight.”
“Maybe that’s why she ended up in Oslo,” Elinor said. “She needed to see that document.”
“Oh please,” said Vlad.
“Mother said I’d meet you there,” Gabriel said, addressing the Countess Helga and the Count.
“See,” the countess said, “magic.”
“A child’s fantasy,” said Vlad, snapping his fingers impatiently for Beauregard.
“She said I’d meet you, too,” Gabriel said to Vlad. “She said you’d be funny.”
Beauregard arrived with a snifter. Vlad Schröder gulped it back.
Suddenly, the dining car shook and the train came to a slow stop.
“What the hell?” Zima said.
“Don’t ask,” said the Conductor, passing through the car. “I’ll know more as soon as I talk to the Engineer. My guess is that we’re five miles out of Akureyri. If necessary, we can send someone out to walk there and bring back help.”
They all looked out of the window.
“It’s freezing out there,” said the Countess. “It’ll be cruel to send anyone on that walk.”
“I hope I don’t have to,” the Conductor said.
“I have to go now,” Gabriel said, standing.
“Go where?” asked Elinor, “The ladies room? Shall I go with you?”
“No. I need to go out there.” Gabriel pointed out of the window at the frozen landscape.
“But you mustn’t,” Count Jan said. “There’s nothing out there except the cold and the wind.”
“But it’s why I’ve come,” said Gabriel, standing and stepping away from the table.
“I won’t allow it,” the Countess said.
And as everyone at the table stood, Gabriel paused and held up her hand.
“This is why I’m here,” she said.
Her sudden severity took them by surprise. And as she stood there, there appeared a small wound over her heart—a small reddening hole in her dress, blackened at its edges where a bullet had passed through. There was a strange whiff of magic in the air, and they each felt powerless to stop her as Gabriel shouldered past the Count.
At the dining car exit, she turned round for only a moment to face the company at the table. “I’ve heard the church bells,” Gabriel said. “The candles have been lit. Jól has begun.” Then she vanished through the door.
The storm subsided, and a short distance away, standing beneath a sky lit with green and blue northern light, stood a slender woman with a wound of her own, holding out her hand, beckoning Gabriel.
“That’s her,” said the Countess.
“Who?” Val said.
“Impossible. And how could you possibly know.”
“It’s strange, but I do.”
“I do too,” said Elinor. “We’re witnesses to something.”
“It’s a kidnapping,” Zima sneered.
“No, don’t be ridiculous,” said Elinor. “This is something else.”
They all exited the car.
“She died with her Mother,” said Countess Helga, the wind off the sea now warm against her cheek.
“That can’t be,” the Count said. “How could it? How could you even know?”
“We’re meant to know. All of us are, Jan. We can feel it if we try.”
And then they saw the greenish light above them populated by spirits. Ghosts of paradise and lament, churning, some pleading, others brave and giving, hunters and scholars, wise women and children. Some with sad, knowing eyes, standing perfectly still, seeming to promise something silent.
“War will be everywhere soon,” said Gabriel, now holding her Mother’s hand. “This much has been said. But there will be peace here. That has been said, also. We’ll be here to ensure it.” She looked up at lights.
“What about your own home?” Vlad said.
“We’ll be there, too.” It was Gabriel’s Mother speaking now. “But this war’s haste and brutality is terrible, and there will be so few places left unhurt before it ends.”
The quiet that fell round them then, and on the surrounding hills, lasted for hours, or perhaps only seconds before Gabriel and her Mother became the light, and were gone.
“Well, that’s worth a postcard home,” said Beauregard, standing behind them, eating saltines from a box.
* * * * *
The Reykjavik Express was up to steam an hour later, and on its way to Akureyri where it would stop for the night, while the Engineer looked for the cause of the stall. It was hoped that the train would leave Christmas morning.
Back in the candle-lit Smoking Car, the group of five, joined by Beauregard, each sat with a small glass of Icelandic vodka, wondering.
After a while, the Count said, “She was in our custody. How will we explain it?”
“I have a feeling we won’t have to,” said the Countess. “It’s like she only ever revealed herself to us, for her own reasons. We were her.”
“Witnesses,” Elinor said.
Then Svyatopolk Zima, sipping his vodka, said, “My Mother told me things like this happened on Christmas Eve, but then she also believed that the world was flat and that cats were Satan’s fifth column.”
“She’d no education, and worked in a Kielbasa shop,” said Vlad. “What possible insights could she have.”
“She could count money, and place her thumb on a scale undetected,” countered Zima. “That made her invaluable. And she could cast charms. Many came to her for relief from the worries of life, each of them left the better for her help.”
“Was it magic,” the Countess asked anyone who’d answer, “what happened out there in that strange light?”
“Magic’s a sliding door,” said Beauregard, drawing all eyes upon him and his new confidence. “May I?” he said to Elinor, who’d earlier had the Chef make a plate of kleinur, an Icelandic delicacy, according to her own recipe.
“Of course,” she said. “Help yourself.”
He reached over, and took one before saying more. “There are good witches that make the daylight last longer in the spring and summer.” He popped the kleinur into his mouth, resuming as he chewed. “There are elves and trolls in the hills, in the stones and on the roads. Mithras and the Moon. There are even farm animals that speak in tongues, in stables where babes are born into poverty under stars of wonder. And ghosts round every corner, hungry ones and ones quite content. There are angels who go where they go. And many magical things we can’t see. Some fall into the dark, others watch from the light. All things that are good, and the magic that sustains them, enjoy renewal this time of year; a door that has slid shut slides open again.”
“Do you think that that’s what Christmas is?” asked Elinor.
“Christmas and a hundred other worthy celebrations.”
“Will there ever be peace?” Vlad wondered.
“It may be selfish to say,” said Zima, “but there’s peace here, right now in this railcar. For the moment, at least. And I’m enjoying it very much.”
“It’s not selfish,” Elinor said. “It’s all we have. Tomorrow, or a week from now, may be very different.”
“Then peace to each of us,” said Beauregard, raising his glass.
They all toasted and drank, and the Count asked, “What did Gabriel whisper into your ear, Beauregard?”
Beauregard hesitated, seeming not to want to reveal a secret. Then he said, “It was a simple thing,” and said no more.
“That’s it?” said Vlad.
Beauregard sighed a fortunate sigh.
The Akureyri Depot was nothing more than a small platform and a lonely shack in a farmer’s field.
At 5:30 a.m. that Christmas morning, shortly before their departure from the Station, Elinor Warkentin was seen on its snowy platform, happily surrounded by a stray flock of winter-woolly sheep as its shepherds rounded it up to bring back to the barn from which they’d escaped. Elinor petted and made friends with each of the creatures before boarding the Express once more.
The Countess was correct; no one, except the group of five, plus Beauregard, ever remembered that the Countess and Count had taken custody of Gabriel. When Jan and Helga returned to Oslo Cathedral to tell their story, neither the Minister nor the Curator of the Cathedral’s collection of ancient texts could remember a little girl taking refuge there. Any memory they had of Gabriel had simply faded away.
The Express faded away too, long ago, and is now thought to have never existed, except by an elderly man, affectionately known as Beau, who’d not so long ago, strolled his neighbourhood on his cane, taking coffee each afternoon at his favourite cafe with an equally elderly, but nonetheless spry, woman named Elinor. Elinor shared Beau’s conviction that the Reykjavik Express had been a reality.
The two of them faded away in their own time, but no one can remember when. Nor can anyone recall if Christmas of ’39 was the Express’ last run, or if there really was a mysterious little girl who vanished before everyone’s eyes?
Some say that the train can still be seen, occasionally, by anyone who cares to believe. Perhaps legends are born this way.
The war never came to Iceland, as Gabriel promised, though the Americans invaded, after a fashion, over-staying their welcome until they left in1949.
Today the island nation has a mighty Coast Guard, but no standing army.