Cover Photo: Moyan Brenn
Moyan Brenn

Psychic in Reykjavik

“I have plenty of relatives in the spirit world. The room should have been packed with them. Shouldn’t my medium know that already?”

1

There is nothing ordinary about Iceland.

On the Icelandair to Reykjavik, the in-flight entertainment is not Muzak; it’s music, released five minutes ago and played by bands with names like Bloodgroup, Lay Low, Moses Hightower. I’ve never heard of any of them before, but I’m quick on the uptake. I haven’t even landed and I already understand that everyone in Reykjavik is a musician, and just about everyone in the country has discovered/produced/sang with Bjork.

No matter where you are—journeying across the lunar landscape along the Golden Triangle, dogsledding in Skall Skalafell, or walking past the dollhouses lined up along the seaside in Aegisida—the sun, a blinding white light, is always shining in the corner of your eye.

In Iceland the cafes have stickers on the doors promising to be “whale friendly,” a sign that means nothing until, in Kolaportid, the weekend flea market, you are handed cubes of fermented shark meat, a delicacy, which does NOT, as advertised, taste “like cheese.”

The night sky is either bright, never darkening, or else it is lit by the Aurora Borealis and the distance past the city’s lights is swathed in a green glow. Major roadworks cannot be undertaken until all the elves who inhabit the area are consulted, and measures are taken not to disturb the creatures. People mention fairies in passing, the way, somewhere else, someone might casually mention the weather. And everyone, bar none, seems to have a medium.

Arnar, my tour guide, has one. His mother has one. All of Bjork’s producers have them. Shrinks or personal trainers hold no water here. No one seems to have gurus or nutritionists. But everyone’s got a medium.

“It’s for the same reason we love stories and music,” Arnar tells me. “Because we are so spiritual.” People might see their mediums weekly, or every few days, or perhaps only in distress. But they see them.

Jakob Magnússon, who actually produced Bjork’s demos when she was eleven years old, jammed with Ringo Starr back in the day, and served as Iceland’s cultural attaché to the United Kingdom, is a tall, blond Reykjavik institution. He explains Iceland’s flirtation with all things mystical to me like this: it comes from the earth. In the 600s it was here that Celtic monks came to find solitude and peace and to commune with God. “There is an energy here,” Jakob says. “We are a volcanic island that has risen from the sea not that long ago. There is heat in the ground.” And it isall that geothermal energy in the soil, embedded with legends and the legacies of warriors, pioneers, and monks—that makes Icelanders lean towards the unusual, towards the magical.

I have come to Iceland to write a travel story and it seems crucial to visit a medium. I have seen the Northern Lights and I have been blessed by the High Priest of the Heathens in the gloaming of a thinning forest. If I ate shark for the purpose of research (sorry), shouldn’t I experience this too?

2

Yes. Yes, I should. 


3

Arnar tracks down an English medium. While I’ve yet to meet an Icelander not fluent in English, Arnar says it’s important to find an actual English person because when mediums go deep into their trances, contacting departed ancestors and spirits, they lapse into mother tongues and ancient languages. So it’s really rather lucky when Arnar finds one who is suitable. He books the appointment under his name.

An hour before my appointment, I have tea with Arnar’s mother, who is a staunch believer in the art. She had a medium she was very close to for years, she tells me, who predicted many of the family’s ups and downs.

“Can’t I go to her?” I ask.

“No,” Arnar says sadly. “She died suddenly a year ago. It happened out of nowhere.”

I bite my tongue and look out the window at the stark expanse of Icelandic nature before us, the earth competing against ice and sea.

Arnar’s mother, a warm and friendly woman, offers me tea and some advice. Mediums are bridges; they connect two worlds. They dance between what is and what isn’t. As such, they can be helpful in offering new perspectives and new insights into the troubles we face.

What I might imagine as magical isn’t really, Arnar’s mother explains. It is a process, a heritage that the mediums possess and translate to us. Be open, she tells me. No harm will come to you. It will be, if anything, a fascinating insight into knowledge one would never otherwise have access to.

“But,” Arnar leans over and interjects, “don’t tell her your name or confirm or deny anything she says. Just in case, you know.” 


4

We drive over to a nondescript building and are buzzed in to a benign-looking office. There are pictures of Mother Teresa on the wall and runes on the receptionist’s desk. There is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on a bookshelf, for some reason, and aside from me the waiting room is empty.

My medium comes out to greet me. “Hello,” she says, extending her hand. “I’m Kit and I’ll be your medium today.”

I shake her hand and mumble a hello, but—as advised—don’t offer my name. I should probably have mentioned somewhere along the way that I have a lifelong aversion to fortune-telling, card-reading, and general future-telling. When I was a child, growing up in Karachi, charlatans of all stripes used to turn up at my politician father’s office in order to read his fortune. They hoped that if they offered him a rosy outlook on his future he might keep them around or call upon them for advice, desperate to be told what the future held for him. My father was least bothered.  

But still, it would have been rude to turn them away.

So I would be called over to the office to stand in for him so the various psychics and clairvoyants wouldn’t feel insulted at being sent home without having performed. “You will never marry, living instead forever with your father to help him in his work,” one bearded palmist pronounced, smiling away at my father. “You will have five sons, all of them will be strong and brave like your illustrious father,” the next forecast, his eyes watching my father’s face for approval. The themes were basically always the same: Everyone would be very happy, live to be a hundred, and be very useful and important.

None of that would turn out to be true. We were happy enough, but my father was murdered outside our house two days after his forty-second birthday.

Kit shows me to a room painted powder blue and we sit down on a couple of Ikea chairs, facing each other. She switches on a tape recorder so that I can listen to our session later should I need to consult it, and sits back with her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her short blonde hair is swept up with a blue hairband and she adjusts her glasses before clearing her throat. And then Kit fails before she even begins.

“What I’ll be doing here . . . ” Kit pauses for me to offer my name, dipping her chin and raising her eyebrows as she waits. “ . . . is contacting your ancestors who have departed into the spirit world.”

“If you don’t have any relatives who have passed away  . . . ” Another pause for my name, but I had already checked out of the conversation. I have plenty of relatives in the spirit world. The room should have been packed with them. Shouldn’t my English-speaking medium know that already? “ . . . then perhaps there’s a great-great-great-great-aunt who watches over you from beyond. Or maybe she has a good friend keeping an eye on you.”

Arnar has told me to keep my game face strong, not to give the medium any clues unless she is on a path I find interesting and want to hear more about. But sitting in front of Kit on a wooden chair, I doubt I will have any problems maintaining my poker face.

Kit’s eyes close and her brow furrows. “I see a woman,” Kit pronounces dramatically. “I see an old woman, who is in a hospital bed. She is obese. She has had a lot of problems with her stomach.” One eye flicks open. “Does this woman look familiar to you?”

Not even remotely.

Kit closes her eye and tilts her head, as though adjusting frequencies. “She is very stressed out, she’s had a lot of suffering in life.” The eye again. “Does that sound familiar to you?”

The stressed bit yes, I reply, but not the other parts.

Kit nods her head and does a bit of deep breathing. “Ah.” She smiles. “Yes, I see it now—it’s two separate women.” The stressed one stays while the obese one takes her leave, having intruded upon the wrong reunion.

The session continues like this, Kit fumbling in the dark and me hardening against mystics forever. The stressed-out woman is “worried about me,” Kit says, frowning, because I am a bit lost in my career. (I’m not; three months before our session, I’d published a novel and had been at work adapting it into a screenplay with Michael Radford, who directed Il Postino.) She thinks I should stop being so shy in groups of people (I could talk to an envelope) and maybe give public speaking a try because even though it was terrifying I should challenge myself  (I have been speaking publicly for years).

I keep stone-cold quiet while Kit grasps at straws and peeks at me every now and again to see how impressed I am. When I’d first landed in Reykjavik I’d thought the local attachment to all things mystical was quaint, and I’d smiled generously when people spoke to me of the elves living in their gardens or the enchanted earth around the country, enchanted because of the harmony between man and spirit. I hadn’t really believed them. But after traveling around the countryside filled with lava, waterfalls, and geysers, and spending an afternoon with a gentle old priest who explained heathenism as a worship of the earth and its blessings, and chasing the Northern Lights every night until finally, finally, we saw them—majestic, dancing across the cold winter sky —I’d begun to shake off some of my skeptical, plain thinking that knew only what it saw.

Why not?

Why not believe in enchantment, mystery, and the unknown and unseen?

Well, Kit, for one.

She goes on and on. I like historical artifacts and museums (I do not); I am fascinated by gold things (I am not); I work in an office and sometimes that is mentally draining (I do not; I’m in Iceland following elves and green lights, for god’s sake). Her one success is when she asks me what hotel I am staying at and it happens to be the same one she stayed at when she first moved to Iceland. “Oh, you see?” she says triumphantly, as though she has made the discovery via her psychic powers. “Look at that,” Kit repeats softly, as though this binds us together in some way.

I watch the clock on the powder-blue walls, my attention drifting as Kit carries on, until, nearing the end of our session, she pauses and raises a hand in the air. “I see a man,” she says ominously. “He’s just come into the room and he’s wanted to see you for some time.”

Me?  

“Yes,” Kit says. “He’s come a long way to see you.”

I think of my father, whom I adored and who was killed when I was fourteen years old. I can’t help myself. For the first time that hour, I feel a stirring.

“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Kit says.

She finally has my rapt attention. Yes, yes he did. I am holding my breath.

“Any time he’s in a room, people want to be around him. He’s the life of any party. Very outgoing, very charming . . . he’s lots of fun.”   

Yes, yes to all those things. I forget all my boredom and irritation. I feel my eyes well with tears against all rational thinking and reasoning. I would never make fun of mediums again. How arrogant was I to assume I knew everything about everything? Even to see him via this blonde, British stranger for a moment, for a whisper of a second, would make me a true believer.

“I’m seeing him clearly now, he’s here with us,” Kit intones. “He’s quite short, about 5’3”, and quite round. Like a little ball of a man . . . ”

My father was over six feet tall. And just like that, the spell was broken.

Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul in 1982. She is a poet, journalist, and author of three books: WHISPERS OF THE DESERT, 8.50 A.M. 8 OCTOBER2005, and SONGS OF BLOOD AND SWORD, a memoir, which was published this year. She currently lives in Karachi.