Go to the red phone box in the harbour, the one incongruous for the town, with views of hills behind you. The one some artist plonked there as part of the festival, and now the only thing remaining from it when the paint has faded on houses and graffiti washed away by Seyðisfjörður’s town council.
The timing is important for the answer you seek. In summer for futures, in spring for changes, autumn for clarity. Nothing in winter.
Enter the booth, close the door tightly behind you. Press the keypad to spell out M-A-R-V-E-L-S once and then backwards again. Wait. Do not look at the door until you hear a knock three times. As you step out, the phone box will disappear behind you; do not lose the Earth-patterned marble if you want to return.
The instructions are almost seared into my head as I retrace them, trying to not think too hard about the small metal box I’m in, the argument I left hanging in the living room and the fact that I never even told Sam that me applying for this Icelandic arts residency had everything to do with this portal. Years to piece together the way to the seelie market to ask one burning question.
The golds and reds nearly blind me as I step out.
‘Hoick your jaw in, you lot all look the same stepping out of that contraption, not a great first impression, looking gormless,’ a gruff voice states from my hip level, hand outstretched. ‘I take it you have your question clear. Cutting it a bit fine – last one for the year, today’s.’
Must be fated then. I hand over my payment: marshmallows. I’d read the empress gave lucid answers with such sweet, fluffy gifts because for all their skill, her subjects couldn’t replicate these. They’re also my favourites.
We hurry past stands filled with impossible creatures, trinkets stitched together from web and wing, puffs of syrupy smoke masking mouth-watering snacks. I mustn’t eat or drink; idly I finger the marble in my coat pocket, reminding myself of where I belong, though it’s never felt that way. Our argument was a long-standing one: about going home, about settling down, about our future, about her wanting kids but me not knowing how to be a dad. This comes first.
She’s striking, the empress, a contrast in deep blue and flecks of purple against the market’s autumn colours. I bow low as I enter, wait for her to see me, focussing only on my question. As prepared as I can be.
‘Another human-male, I see. Rise. Ask. I’m weary and want sleep.’
I level my gaze at her. By her right-hand side sits the crown princess, face serene, half-smiling in her security. And now I already know but she needs to reply all the same.
‘Why did you exchange me for a human, Mother?’