Out of the Blue

A groundbreaking collection of fiction from Iceland’s best contemporary authors.

Out of the Blue is the first anthology of Icelandic short fiction published in English translation and features work by twenty of Iceland’s most popular and celebrated living authors. The collection transports readers to Iceland’s timeless and magical island of Vikings and geographical wonders, promising to be a seminal collection that will define Icelandic literature in translation for decades to come.

The Cook

A short story by Oskar Magnusson published in Out of the Blue in 2017.

“The Old Man should be able to understand that if we don’t get anything to eat, then we don’t fish either. This lousy cook should be fired, or I won’t do another tour.” It was Deckhand Hrólfur talking, directing his speech to Benni, who was Cchief Eengineer on the Hafborg RE. Benni listened. There was no disagreement about this; all of the crewmen would leave sooner or later if the cook weren’t wasn’t changed. They’d been on night watch, and when they wanted to have a snack after the last haul, there wasn’t a bite to be found anywhere, no bread or any cold cuts to put on it, not even dry biscuits. The refrigerator was locked, as well as the locker back on the boat- deck. It wasn’t Benni’s job to look after the cook, but they often talked to him when they didn’t take their complaints to the captain. Benni knew the Old Man best of all. He’d worked with him for many years and knew how to deal with him.

“We’ll just wake up the cook. He’s been sleeping for six hours. Hopefully he wasn’t drinking before he went to bed, because then we’ll be in the shit,” said Engineer Benni. The cook did not sleep forward in the cabin, but instead had his bunk directly under the mess, and that’s where Hrólfur went. He shook Cook Dommi heartily and then ran back up again. After a moment, they heard someone stumbling on the stairs. Keys clattered, and the lock on the refrigerator was opened. Cook Dommi appeared ash- greay in the door of the mess and started throwing mandarin oranges at the crew as they sat there.

“Absolutely, have something to eat,; you can’t go hungry, you wretches,” he hissed as he shot limp and shabby mandarins all over the mess. The mandarins must have been from Christmas. Several mandarins landed on crewmembers, but most on the walls and portholes. The mess was completely filthy by the time Cook Dommi finished with the mandarins, stumbled down the stairs again, and mumbled, “And I was just drifting off.”

By great luck the tour was over later that day. On the return trip, Raggi the Liar found some food for the crew, but they let Dommi sleep. Besides being a liar, Raggi was first mate on the Hafborg RE, called the Bogga for short, a pleasant fellow and a fine fisherman. His face was very lined, with a jutting lower jaw, usually light-colored peach fuzz on his chin, and jutting yellowish teeth. He was splayfooted, which is generally considered good for a seaman. Raggi seldom uttered a true word but didn’t realize his own flaw, and always thought he was being truthful. Thus, his stories often had the tendency to sound very precise and authentic. His nickname stuck to him except on Seaman’s Day, when he was always called Ragnar the Untruthful. Raggi the Liar alternated watches with Lárus Símonarson, Lalli Sím—the Old Man. The Old Man shared ownership of the boat with his cousin, who was a highly educated doctor in marine biology. He had never gone to seesea, but owned a fish-processing factory out on Grandi. The Bogga always landed its catch at the doctor’s factory.

Lalli Sím was a real sea dog. Large, thick, and gray-bearded, in a wool sweater and a knitted wool cap. He was as sharp as a lion and well read, especially in the old sagas and law. He was quiet but pleasant, and sometimes sarcastic. Lalli had been going to sea all his life, mostly on trawlers, and the Bogga was one of few trawlers that was outfitted from Reykjavík—169 tons but recorded as 105 so that it could fish in areas limited to boats that size. It was a productive ship with a good return, although the crew felt that the doctor didn’t always pay the highest wage. They informed Lalli that they wouldn’t sail again with Cook Dommi on board.

Dommi took being fired very badly, and when he walked up the pier to the Ccoffee Sshop, they heard him mutter as if to himself, “Mandarins! Those idiots! Firing a guy with so much experience and not even being able to tell the difference between mandarins and clementines!”

The Old Man had trouble sleeping. He often slept very little when fishing, but usually took to his bunk on the way in. There were strict orders not to wake him even when the boat reached the harbor. He could sleep twelve hours at one go in the harbor. He was never in a rush to get home—the kids had all left home, and the wife would rather have him sleep on the boat than come home unrefreshed.

Captain Lárus Símonarson woke up rested and cheerful this May morning and walked up the pier. He met a clean-cut boy, pale-colored and slim, who asked whether he had room for a deckhand. Lalli told it like it was, that all he needed was a cook. The boy said that he’d been thinking about becoming a deckhand—he didn’t know how to cook at all, but had been on trawlers two summers and once at Christmas.

Lalli had no need to put an inexperienced cook on such a productive ship, but he was in a good mood and felt like trying out the boy,. “It’s excellent that you’ve been to sea—we’ll need you on deck, too, since we’ve only got eight up there. Take note, good fellow: Tthe cook gets one and a quarter, not just one share like the deckhands. Why shouldn’t you be able to cook like the others? Who’s your mother?” After the boy listed his relatives on his mother’s side and Lalli decided she was descended from a long line of famous cooks, they went down to the ship to have a look at things.

One entered the mess through the galley, that which was as large as the guest bathroom in a normal single-family house. All the same, they made their agreement there in the mess. Ómar Matthíasson, a 19 nineteen-year -old student in the Reykjavík Lyceum, was hired as cook on the Hafborg RE. He was to report for work in approximately one week, when the boat would be finished undergoing repairs. “Now go home to your mother, and cook meals morning and night for a week. That’ll do, since we never stay out longer than a week at a time. Be happy, man.”

“One and a quarter, cook, one and a quarter,” thought Ómar. When they left the harbor a week later, the weather was gloomy. Ómar tied on his apron as they steamed out. Mother had made him a number of aprons by sewing ties to dish towels and exhorted him to always wear a clean one. “Change your apron once a day, my dear Ói,” she said. “Then you should start by serving meatballs, at least once during the first twenty-four -hour period, or the meat will go bad.”

Ómar started with the meatballs—he wasn’t going to take any chances with the raw ingredients. He spread out the meat mixture in its plastic, melted margarine in the pan, and dipped his spoon in it so the mixture wouldn’t stick to the spoon that he used to makeas he made the meatballs. The pitching of the ship increased steadily, and although Ómar had previously been at sea, it was almost a year since the last time. He was also nervous. He was feeling queasy: seasickness was starting to rear its ugly head. He continued making meatballs; he had to make a heap of them for eight men, or seven anyway—he himself wouldn’t eat much now. And then the gushing started. The new cook (at one and a quarter) vomited heartily over the meat mixture. He wiped his mouth on his apron and thought that now it was do or die. He would really be in the shit if he weren’t wasn’t able to produce his first meal. When Engineer Benni came walking through the galley on his way to the mess for a cup of coffee, he saw the cook scraping most of the vomit from the meat so that he could keep cooking meatballs for seven. He put an arm amicably around Ómar’s shoulders. “Go to your bunk, man, we’ll look after ourselves tonight.”

When Ómar woke up, they were docked at the town of Ólafsvík. That suited him fine, because they ended up sheltering there for twenty-four hours while the storm passed over. Ómar was able to put in some practice in the kitchen and on the equipment, get a good grasp on the job. He went to the shop and bought beef goulash, that which he planned to cook in something of a celebration. He would even put laurel leaves in it. It turned out the shopkeeper had sawed some lamb steaks, and he sold him Ómar the bones and fat. He threw that rubbish in the sea. The ship departed again. Ómar knew precisely the fourteen dishes he had copied down from his mother in a spiral notebook with a monkey picture on the front. That was a coincidence, he thought. One of the fourteen meals quickly received the name “Piss-Warm Buffet,” because in it the cook served hot and cold together. It was sausages and mashed potatoes, pickled herring, eggs, and cold meat leftovers. All of his dishes were elegantly served, with a clean tablecloth and always a clean apron. The cook followed along with the fishing, but they the crew didn’t feel the need to include him unless they had a pretty good haul. “Bake a sponge cake, we’ve got a bloody slack-fish,” called out Hrólfur when the catch was small. Cook Ómar had come up with a method of re-heating sponge cakes that he had bought at Nóatún Supermarket that made them seem freshly baked. The crewmen all pretended they were.

The Old Man never praised the food but sometimes said, “Holy shit, your mother must be a good cook.” On Sundays it was always leg or rack of lamb. Then, the Old Man would take the remains of the rack up to the bridge and sit there gnawing and sucking the bones. After that he’d throw them in the sea. Just like the chess set. He threw had thrown it in the sea when his prospective son-in-law checkmated him. The man was Scottish, big and strong, but always sick. “Dizzy.” He only stayed only a short time on board, as well as in the family. Then the Old Man felt ashamed of himself and brought a new chessboard along on the next tour, as well as a battery for the clock in the galley. After that he informed the crew he was going bankrupt: Tthese expenditures were going to screw him completely. He showed them the battery and said, “oOne hundred and eighty,” meaning that that was the cost. Then he shook his head in despair. He called himself stingy and penniless, but he had enough money and was the most generous of men. “Look at that goddamn cook. He can actually work,” said Engineer Benni. They were bringing in a five-ton haul, and all hands were on deck. “We bosses don’t need to be calling each other names,” said the cook, who was starting to become more and more assertive. Raggi the Liar said that he could immediately calculate how much they were making on this tour, since he knew the prices of fish in and out. No one knew whether his figures were correct, because the accounts weren’t settled until the fall, and by then everyone had forgotten Raggi’s lies. And no one knew how the doctor calculated things either. Some said he could only divide and subtract. Raggi mostly multiplied.

Cook Ómar put dried fruit to soak in a bowl that he propped on a wet cloth on a table in the galley. The fruit -soup recipe in his notebook with the monkey cover said that the fruit needed to soak overnight. Ómar went to sleep. In the morning all of the fruit was gone except for one prune.

Ómar cooked sheep- sausages for lunch, and then the soup, of course. “What kind of garbage is this?” said the Old Man, lifting the large ladle from the soup pot. From it hung a gluey light-brown mud made of water, sugar, and potato flour.

“It’s fruit soup,” said Cook Ómar in the galley doorway.

“Fruit soup!” shouted the entire crew. “And where is the fruit?”

“You ate it all. You ate it while I was sleeping. Here, just like anywhere else, you can only eat food up only one time, so now you decide when you want to eat it! And I’m not locking the fridge or locker up anymore—take what you want. And let the Old Man have the prune if you can find it.” They seemed to get the message. Some of them had a blob of the gluey rubbish, with cream on top.

Cook Ómar had become one of them. He shared with them his dreams of becoming a priest in the countryside and having a wife and plenty of children. In return they called him a mamma’s boy and Jesus child and said he’d never amount to anything more than a lusty, drunken rural priest in some isolated valley somewhere. More than likely he’d be defrocked. The atmosphere on board was very friendly. The cook and Deckhand Hrólfur had become particularly good comrades. They were standing astern when the net was let out.

“Ommi, wouldn’t it be fun to go down with the trawl door and see how it works down there?” asked Hrólfur.

“Yeah, maybe, if you go first,” said Ómar. “Where’s your engagement ring?”

“Gauja and I broke up a long time ago,” said Hrólfur. “I just didn’t take it off until last Saturday. I pawned it off to a cab driver. Got two bottles of aquavit for it. I’m not sure I’ll go get it back.” They stopped talking. Ómar looked at the trawl door and Hrólfur at his finger, and then he said, “Maybe I should try and work things out with her before I turn thirty. She’s great. She wanted us to buy an apartment together. She told me I needed to lose some weight.”

“Your turn to sleep. Do you want me to wake you up for dinner?”

“What’ve you got?” asked Hrólfur.

“Breaded cutlets.”

“Yeah, wake me up for the breading,” said Hrólfur, and he went to the cabin. The fall low-pressure systems had arrived. The Bogga had been docked for two days at the village of Rif with a good catch that the doctor was waiting for. They had nothing to do, just sat in the mess. The Old Man stumped the cook on the old sagas,. Raggi the Liar had decided to become a truck driver and immediately claimed that he’d earn a wage many times that of a ship captain. Hrólfur sat in the other corner and talked to Engineer Benni. “I’m not going to go pick up the ring unless I get Gauja first,” he said. Benni agreed. “Things have got to be done in the right order.”

The Old Man had had enough of hanging around,. “Let’s tie up, we’re going to punch it home,” he said,. and He added coffee to his cup and went up to the bridge to check the weather.

Cook Ómar was pretty worried on the way home. Never had he experienced such weather. They alternated watches, but Ómar didn’t dare go down when his watch was finished. It was safer to stay near the Old Man. He couldn’t tell from looking at him if they were in danger. The Old Man just peered into the darkness and didn’t say a single unnecessary word. The Bogga drudged along for hours. No one had any appetite. They had stopped drinking coffee, just sat in the mess and held on, except for Ómar. He was up on the bridge.

Finally the Old Man looked at Ómar and said, “I’m going to pledge a hundred thousand krónur to the Stranda Church if we survive this.” The young man’s heart stopped for a moment—were they actually in any real danger, or what? No reply. The Old Man had stopped talking again.

When Ómar Matthíasson, the cook, lightheartedly hopped onto land holding the end of the rope and tied it to the pier by the coffee shop, the Old Man stuck his head, with its knitted cap still in place, out the bridge window and said, “Can’t a guy even tell a joke around here?”

Translated by Philip Roughton