There is a place near the sea where they say the light behaves strangely, where the words you speak echo back to you across the waves, saying something else entirely. Here, too, the pieces of far-off, crumbling giants have come ashore and are melting slowly in the sun while the relentless, northern waves wash over them.
On the shores of Iceland, the clouds toss the sun between them like a ball, high in the frigid air, and the black sand exorcises shadow and absorbs demons from all who visit there. A cleansing place.
I went when they said a whole eye had been beached there. The most complete piece they’d had in years, they said. I watched the footage online of it coming in with the tide. It bobbed closer, then ebbed away, until, finally, after hours of slowly drifting nearer and nearer, it all at once landed with a mighty splash. I stopped the video and watched it again.
After weeks of nothing in my life mattering, suddenly something did. I had to go see it. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t have long left to live.
I hadn’t known what to say to my doctor when he told me my body was dying. I felt fine, just a little tired, shaky. I thought it was nerves at starting the new job, or maybe sleep deprivation (I’d always had restless nights).
It wasn’t either of those.
ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and three years on average to live, if you called being forced to experience the slow breakdown of every muscle in your body living. I wished with all my heart that I had something that would kill me faster.
“What should I do?” I asked him.
He shook his head sadly at me. “Get some specialists on board, keep trying treatments. There are things we can do to make it easier and to slow your body’s deterioration. Ultimately, you have to prepare yourself and your loved ones. You’ll be tempted to shut them out. My best advice is: Don’t.” He awkwardly patted me on the back as I was leaving his office, “I’m sorry. It’s unfair, it really is.”
I knew it was. It was unfair. As anyone would say who heard my story, my death signified nothing other than waste. What could I accomplish in three years? With my body set to fail at every turn, I had no potency anymore. I had never felt so insignificant.
I didn’t take my doctor’s advice, either. I felt I needed to be alone. I couldn’t face seeing my family and friends, or them seeing me. The time limit I’d been set brutally reminded me how much I had depended on having years of my life left to fix all the relationships I’d broken. I scrolled through my friends on social media and knew that every one of them had reason to be angry with me. What would happen if I told them I was dying?
I disconnected all of my accounts and turned off my phone.
I spent my days in the welcome distraction of engaging in obscure research. I found an article in a science magazine about the discovery of giants in the arctic circle. Frozen for who knows how long inside massive mountains of ice, we were completely unaware of them until the glaciers, icebergs, and ice shelves started cracking and liquefying. Then, with more and more frequency over the past couple years, pieces of colossi washed up on beaches all over the northern hemisphere, and especially in Iceland. Paleontologists believe that this was the gigantic race’s home.
I scrolled through the different drawings of what a whole giant would have been like. Humanoid, but shaggy like Bigfoot, and with a strange, jellyfish like transparency to their skin and bones. Cave dwellers, perhaps, or maybe creatures exclusively belonging to an ice age, designed to blend in against the blinding white reflection of sun-on-snow.
I wondered how long it took for them to become extinct. As climate change reshaped their environment, they would have struggled to adapt, and eventually, inevitably, they failed to. I wondered if they knew that they would fail, that natural selection would pass them by.
When the video of the eye showed up on a live feed, I bought my plane ticket. I also purchased a cane. My walking was getting shakier, and I wanted to ensure that I could stand and study this natural wonder for as long as I wanted. Alone.
This one trip made up my whole bucket list, a thing I never thought I’d need until now. Before I die, I’d like to see this one thing in person was a thought process that had never taken place in my head before. Yet, as I flew through the clouds, I found myself thinking of the trip as a final pilgrimage.
There was something about that eye. Maybe it was just the bevy of images I’d already gone through, where all that had surfaced on the beach were broken fragments, in contrast to the eye’s whole being, or maybe it was the idea of something so personal, so distinct to life as an eye. Either way, I felt compelled.
Like every shore I’d ever been to, that beach in Iceland felt like coming to the edge of the world. I looked out across the shadowy sands, facing into the wailing wind coming from where the gray sea met the paler gray sky, and I thought that this edge must face towards death.
I was alone on that particular day, no tourists. It had just stormed, and the water was high, sloshing large waves with full bellies onto the shore, where they burst, spraying me with their freezing innards. In amongst them, and littering the shoreline, I saw various shattered body parts: a severed thumb, its icy tendons spiking out of one end, the coiled chunk of a brain, a giant rib. The smallest of these was the size of a car. Their contours were blurred, and I could see how pitted their surfaces had become. In a few more days, they’d be unrecognizable. I hurried past them, as fast as I could hobble while digging my cane into the sand, to find the object of my interest.
The eye had been flung a couple hundred yards away from where the rest of the remains lay. The waves sucked at the very bottom of it, where it was partly sunken into the ground. With an axis the height of a man, from far away, it looked like a huge, foggy blue marble had rolled out of the sea. But the closer I got to it, the more excited I grew, until, when I was actually standing in front of it, and it had devoured my vision, I laughed louder than I had in weeks. It was perfect. The sleek, wet retina arched above me in unbroken roundness. As I looked at it, the sun soared between two clouds and its rays shot through the transparent eyeball and filled it with warmth for the moment. I was almost blinded. It was more light than the light itself, and it glimmered out over the shadowy sand like bomb shrapnel. When my own eyes recovered, as if it were an all-encompassing crystal, I gazed into its depths. The sun’s rays bounced joyously off of every retinal vein, but I saw past them into the lens and through the pupil on the other side.
Back towards me, over the seal-smooth backs of the waves, came the echoes of my laughter, now sounding hysterical, like someone in an ecstasy of grief.
I looked through the eye. All around was black, spherical space. Spherical because it encircled, it never turned a corner or split a seam. The blackness was everything there was. Like a sudden burst of choral music, the sun bloomed into being. Behind it, the stars’ tiny, silver lanterns swayed far away in a distant wind. Our Earth was there, too. And in the time it takes to read a sentence, I watched it blossom into seas and into flowers. The eye saw every glorious mountain range, every dinosaur, and it saw every grain of sand and every fruit fly. I saw them too, all at the same time. I couldn’t comprehend it, but I saw. It took only a few moments for life to swarm my senses.
It was too much. I staggered back, barely catching myself with my cane. I struggled to get my breath.
“Good God,” I said, “glorious.”
Good, said God. Remember how glorious, whispered the sea.
The sun was being caught by the next cloud, soon its rays would vanish. I squinted at the sky. I had to look, one more time.
I actually placed my hand on its huge surface as I bent forward to look again.
The waves were sloshing at my feet. My toes were far past being numb, and I could feel my limbs shaking at the effort of holding me upright.
It was all dark, again. The stars burned fainter, as if they had picked up their lanterns and carried them farther away. The sun rolled lazily over the horizon. It looked bloated. Under its light, I saw nothing but a dust cloud, tossing like a restless sleeper. No more blooming, no more life, just scarred and bitter desolation was present on the earth. The scene before me appeared to howl.
The sun went in, and the eye was no longer transparent, but foggy again. Under my palm, the surface moistened, sending small rivulets down my arm. I stepped back from the eye. Where my hand had pressed it, a small dent interrupted its roundness.
The tide was coming in. The water now reached above my ankles. If I didn’t leave soon, I might not be able to walk.
Nevertheless, I forced myself to journey around the rim, through the incoming tide, leaning painfully on my cane, until I was standing in front of the iris. Webbing out from the hollow pupil was a perfect circle of color on the larger sphere, and that color was untouched, oceanic blue.
I knew it was looking at me. It might once have seen which dust particles I would make up in that post-apocalyptic sandstorm. The pupil widened, inviting me in once again. I yielded to it, bending forward, the eye and me face-to-face. In it, I could see my own reflection, and in that single image, I saw every reflection of myself I’d ever glimpsed. Only my face seemed softened, as if by love or memory. The waves continued to pass to and from us, and, as I looked out again into the tide, it seemed as though the eye gave birth to the ocean. As if it cried the briny spray into being.
I no longer thought about walking away, I didn’t think I could have even if I’d wanted. I was so cold that my whole body was bound stiff and tight with it. I barely felt it when my legs gave out and I collapsed into the rising water. I leaned against the eye, as if it had been a friend’s shoulder, and let my cane wash away with the black sand.
“Perhaps,” I murmured, “a few of those tears are for me.”
The sea blew back no answer but a sigh.