Gun Bubbles

The unlikely connections between baby bumps and bullets

The Icelandic word for dinosaur is risaeðla, which means giant lizard. Bergmál, the word for echo, means language of mountains. To say wedding, you use brúðkaup, which means to buy a bride. Quotation marks are goose feet, bras are breast-holders, and planets are wandering stars. If I tell you I’m in love with a guy with gray-blue eyes and an accent, I’m really saying I am imprisoned by affection.

Many summer nights, this guy—my husband—and I sit on a patch of damp grass in a suburb of Reykjavík, watching the midnight sun smolder and bouncing between languages. Half-Icelandic and raised in the United States, I have forgotten many of the words I knew as a child, and I laugh as if hearing them for the first time. Sometimes I get carried away, taking some poetic license. A penguin is a blubber-goose. An idea is a picture in the mind. A cello, a knee-violin. “Do you remember what a sloth is?” he’ll ask, and although I have an inkling—a sniff of sight—I don’t risk the guess. “Remind me.” He smirks. “Letidýr.” Lazy animal.

Icelandic is like this: blunt, beautiful. The land itself is striking and extreme, marked by glaciers, rumbling volcanoes, black-sand beaches made of cooled lava. Winters are practically without daylight; summers, nightless. Hot water shoots up from the earth, warm tap water smells like rotten eggs, and in winter, snow swirls so fiercely that the whole island is chalked white. There are elves here, known as hidden people, huldufólk, who live behind brightly painted doors in the mountains and, if you believe the stories my parents tell me, routinely swap well-behaved children for evil imposters. “The elves stole my good son and daughter,” my mother would say when my brother and I fought. “I don’t know who you two are.”

Icelandic is like this: blunt, beautiful. The land itself is striking and extreme.

A marshmallow is a sugar-pillow. A rocket, flying fire. A hangover is a man made of wood.

Placenta is a womb-cake. To breastfeed is to give the gift of your boobs.

Translated literally, abortion is fetus-deletion. Bullets are gun bubbles.

In Colorado Springs several years ago, on Black Friday, my dad pulled a rental car into a parking spot and left the engine running. “I’ll be quick,” I promised from the back seat. I was living in the United States at the time, and my parents and I had come out west to visit my brother and his girlfriend for Thanksgiving. We were about to fly back to the East Coast on a red-eye. I’d asked to stop at a grocery store so I could buy a yogurt for the road.

The parking lot was laced in frost, tiny crystals that cracked when I walked. Hands shoved in my pockets for warmth, I hustled past some Christmas trees and approached the store entrance. Two cop cars idled there, but I was so focused on getting inside that I didn’t pay much mind. Then I heard a pop.

“Get on the ground!” someone shouted. Confused, I took another step toward the store. There, I glimpsed three rows of people watching me from behind the glass as if from inside a brightly lit fish tank.

“Get on the fucking ground!” came another voice. “There’s a shooter!”

For a split-second I locked eyes with a man inside the store, standing at the seam where the automated sliding doors met. He was wearing a white shirt and a name tag I couldn’t read. I took him to be the manager. I heard a pop, another, another.

“Get on the fucking ground!” I glimpsed a cop and realized that’s who was screaming at me. “Get down!”

As the manager turned the key to seal the doors shut, I saw him mouth sorry from the safe side. The horror on his face told me he meant it. I have lived few moments so lonely as this.

I darted back through the Christmas trees, pops sounding around me. The officers kept shouting, and I heard them but kept not-listening. I was light. I was quick. I knew my legs. My legs ran miles before breakfast. My legs won half-marathons. My legs were made for escape.

Rounding a pillar, I saw the silver hood of my parents’ sedan and sprinted. Bullets kept popping, sounding fake, childlike—gun bubbles. I veered toward the car and lunged to get inside. But this wasn’t our rental; it was one just like it. My parents were a few spaces down. “Get on the fucking ground.” This time I listened. I splayed myself flat on the frozen asphalt, bubbles all around. “Stay down!” the voice ordered, as if it could sense me scheming. I had made up my mind. I could see the bent license plate on the front of my parents’ car. I bolted.

Pop, pop, pop!

 I tore into the back seat and slammed the door, shaking from head to foot. My parents seemed to move like they were underwater. “There’s a shooter! There’s a shooter!” I screamed the words that had been shouted at me. I don’t know what to say about my mom’s face except that her eyes looked frizzy.

 Without a word, my dad started driving, hopping the curb, making for the only exit yet to be blocked by SWAT vehicles. The radio played whatever had been playing as I lunged into the back seat. Cars on either side of us accelerated for the freeway. I remember the way my dad’s gaze shot a nervous triangle: road, rearview, side-view, road, rearview, side-view. My heart galloped. I thought I might puke the whole wet mess of it out onto the seat beside me. I rubbed my hands up and down my arms and legs, making soothing sounds that I didn’t recognize as coming from my own mouth. Maybe it wasn’t my voice, but my mom’s.

Two bananas slumped in a paper bag beside me. I devoured them, peeling the second before I’d finished the first. Their weight and mush and sweetness settled some of my shaking and gave my body something else to focus on, if only briefly. My dad kept ticking his eyes from the windshield to the mirrors and back, and eventually my mom and I held up our respective cell phones, tapping the screens and googling. None of us understood, in any sense of the word, what the hell had just happened.

My mom spoke aloud every winged thought flitting inside her: She’d seen the police cars and wondered what was up; she’d had a feeling, something was off about the air today; Dad should have let her drive. My father’s demeanor was rigid, mountain-like. Hers was frantic.

Afterward, they focused on the look on my face when I ran to the car. My mom said she’d never seen such pure terror. Dad said it was the look animals used to get on the farms in Iceland, where he spent his childhood summers—the clutch-life fear when they glimpsed a gun.

For the rest of the ride to the airport, I kept quiet, trying to see my face through their eyes.

The only time I ever shot a gun was in the northwest of Iceland, where my uncle Steini directed the region’s natural research institute. There, among the peninsular fjords, was also where my cousin once spotted a polar bear from a window at her elementary school. The sick, withering creature had presumably left Greenland’s melting ice caps and made its way to the shores of Iceland in search of food. My uncle, charged with figuring out what to do with this beautiful beast, made a controversial decision to shoot it so it wouldn’t reach the town center. She—the bear was a female—was, according to my uncle, too malnourished to tranquilize. He put her out of her misery, he said. Later, he learned that the bear had been pregnant. Later still, he had the body stuffed and propped outside his office on its hind legs, front paws raised as if to attack.

On that first and only day I shot a gun, this same uncle had taken me and a handful of my male relatives to a shooting range, really just a wooden hut manned by a sparse-toothed fisherman who owned a wall of shotguns. The goal was to put a shot through the center of small orange discs in the sky.

In spite of myself, I did all the things I had heard that girls do around guns: giggled nervously, questioned whether I could lift the barrel, waited for one of my cute older cousins to wrap his arms around me and say, “Don’t be scared, it’s not that hard. I’ll show you.” The gun’s heft reminded me of the lead vests people wear when getting X-rays, the ones I’m always anxious to take off.

At the time, I was in high school, playing three varsity sports. My basketball coach called me a barracuda on account of my ruthless defense and frequent steals. I had been told many times, by friends and opponents alike, that I was intimidating. Intense. At five-foot-three, with a baby-fat face that looked like the Sunbeam bread girl, I had trouble seeing myself as terrifying. “It’s your eyes,” my mom used to tell me. “You have those Icelandic eyes.”

For the rest of the ride to the airport, I kept quiet, trying to see my face through their eyes.

Orange discs shot skyward. The guys took turns blasting them down. Haukur, my closest cousin, whose name means hawk, gave me a nudge. “Come on, Magga. Your turn.” My brother rolled his eyes. “She can’t shoot!”

Hawk stood behind me and helped to steady the barrel. My dad and uncle watched from beside the wooden shed, with the old fisherman, who had snuff tobacco dripping from his nose, a black line from nostrils to lips. “Ready,” Hawk whispered.

The gun’s kickback knocked me to the ground, stunned. Soon my cousins were on the ground too, doubled over laughing. I unleashed myself from the gun’s strap and waited out the rest of the afternoon in the back of Uncle Steini’s Jeep, arms crossed, looking the opposite way, waiting for the discs to stop falling.

The shoot-out lasted five hours. As my parents and I walked through airport security for our flight home, customers in the grocery were just being released from lockdown. Details about the incident were still coming together. In the end, three people died, and nine were severely injured.

  As it turned out, the store was very close to a Planned Parenthood clinic. On this particular day, Black Friday, a middle-aged man had woken up and decided to take a stand against fetus-deletion by gunning adults down.

 The gunman said he was doing God’s work. He considered himself a martyr—which in Icelandic is píslarvottur, witness to torment. The word for killing, víg, sounds a lot like the verb vígja, to make holy. The word vígur, which describes one who is skilled in arms, is pronounced similarly to the English word vigor, meaning vitality, life force. These words skate across each other in my mind. I suspect if I follow them long enough, I’ll wind up in the Norse cosmology of the Viking era, where killing and consecrating could be one and the same.

Sometimes I have one-sided conversations with this man in my mind: What would killing someone like me, a young woman trying to buy a single-serve Greek yogurt, have done to prove your case?

Every ninety days since November 2015, once per season for nearly six years, the gunman has been deemed unfit to sit for trial. This despite his raucous confessions of guilt, that he did what he did for the babies. I surmise that before God he’d do it again.   

What if you had shot me and I had been pregnant, I want to ask him.

A few years before the shooting, on a blustery Christmas morning in New England, the left side of my body went slack, and I dropped to the kitchen floor of my childhood home. My dad carried me to the car. I spent a week on the cardiac ward. Stroke (heilaslag, blow to the brain) was the diagnosis—this despite my clean bill of health, low BMI, normal cholesterol. I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, ran half-marathons, ate lots of green stuff. And yet.

A month after being discharged, I returned to the hospital to have a hole in my heart sutured shut. This hole, called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO, should have closed itself at birth but didn’t; the hole was the flaw in the design, the secret passageway through which a blood clot had shuttled from my heart to my head. I was told the clot had to do with hormones. At the time of the stroke, I was on birth control pills, which can make blood sticky. Had I not been on hormonal contraceptives, the clot may not have formed, and the hole would not have mattered. Had there not been a hole in the first place, the clot may have dissolved in the lungs, as clots routinely do, and the contraceptives would not have mattered.

But as it happened, both mattered. They mattered so much that, weeks after the surgery, at a gynecological checkup, a doctor looked half at me, half at her computer screen, and announced I wouldn’t be able to safely have children. “Too risky,” she said. “Given your history. It could happen again.” The stroke, she meant.

When did it become my history, I still wonder. This history I didn’t want, didn’t choose. A history that had perhaps been written into the blueprint of my body. When I took my first breath, the hole in my heart should have closed. But what nature should have done, nature did not do.

On the doctor’s desk was a framed photo of her with three little kids piled on her lap. I hated what she told me. Hated myself for being the person she told it to, the person with my history. I ran home, biting the insides of my cheeks to keep from crying. I rushed through the back door and crumbled to the kitchen floor, same as that Christmas morning. Instead of tears, dry heaves, a silent, futile moan.

Would I delete a fetus? I never needed to contemplate that question. The very possibility of a fetus had been erased.

In 2019, Iceland’s parliament passed new abortion legislation. Included in this bill about reproductive freedom was a motion to change fóstureyðing—fetus-deletion—to a softer word: þungunarrof, hiatus of pregnancy. Proponents of the change argued that the word fóstureyðing shackles women with guilt and shame. Change what you call an abortion, they reason, and you’ll change how it feels. But still, in conversations among young women I sometimes overhear at the university where I teach, in one of the most gender-progressive countries on the planet, abortion remains what it has been for forty years: fetus-deletion.

What we call things affects our understanding of those things, our relationship with them, our judgments about them. It is a different proposition for a woman to erase/delete/destroy her fetus than it is for her to put her pregnancy on hiatus.

Words matter.

Too risky. Get on the fucking ground. Your history.

Sometimes, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I picture the gunman’s mess of wiry hair and how wide his eyes were in the mug shot I found. How he interrupted court proceedings over a dozen times, shouting, “I am guilty. There’s no trial. I’m a warrior for the babies.”

What if he had shot me, and I had been pregnant?

You wouldn’t have been. The doctor told you.

But what if, if I were pregnant, I wouldn’t have deleted a fetus or put my pregnancy on hiatus?

It’s not about you. It’s the principle.

Then why risk shooting at someone like me, what principle did that prove?

It was for the babies.

If I wanted a baby and couldn’t have one. Isn’t that the opposite, the antithesis of what you’re killing people for.

It’s not about you. It’s the principle.

Last year, a decade and change after the stroke, I fell pregnant. I had moved to Iceland and consulted doctors who weren’t as concerned as the gynecologist I had seen when I was twenty-three. The words too risky no longer echoed so loud in my mind. We tried and it worked.

The first three months were all-day sickness, fatigue like no fatigue I had ever felt, a nauseating disdain for the smell of indoor spaces, our apartment included, especially the refrigerator. I didn’t open that cesspool of smells for weeks. I gagged while brushing my teeth. I ate a freshly baked cranberry scone from a nearby bakery for breakfast and lunch every day, and takeout Thai noodles every night.

Words matter. What we call things affects our understanding of those things, our relationship with them, our judgments about them.

The ball of cells inside me grew and grew. Kicked sometimes.

I jabbed my thighs and love handles with blood thinners and made a constellation of needle pricks on my skin. My body baked a womb-cake. Soon I could hardly roll over in bed. I looked down and couldn’t see my feet, but sometimes I could feel hers—the baby was a girl—wedged beside my ribs. I oiled my stomach. We waited.

Labor was eternal, then over, and all that mattered was the wet, red, crying creature whose cheek pressed to mine. She pawed at my eyes while doctors stitched shut the incision on my stomach, the hole in my core from which she had been pried.

I don’t know whether my baby, my daughter, was to my mind ever anything other than a baby. On the outside, I was careful to use the correct terminology—an embryo, a fetus—but inside I told a different story. For nearly ten years, I had lived with the belief that I would never be able to safely carry a baby. I had been so scared of having another stroke that I had taken one doctor’s words of warning as bond. Maybe the impossibility of the baby inside me was what made her precisely that, a baby through and through.

I stare at her as she stares in wonder of her hands, her toes, and I try to understand how once she didn’t exist. Once, she was a honeycomb of cells. Inside my once broken body, she grew to be her.

I want to bring my baby to America. I want to want to bring her. Half of me wants to cook her dinner in the kitchen in Connecticut where I watched my mom cook me dinner. The other half wants to shield her on a small, peaceful island in the North Atlantic that to me is neither home nor not-home.

The illogic of the United States gives me pause. Gunning down women “for the babies.” Shooting up elementary schools for the—the what? Movie theaters, nightclubs, houses of worship. Grocery stores, birthday parties, post offices, private homes. In some years, recent ones especially, there are more mass shootings than there are days.

I want to want to go home. But for my daughter’s sake I want to stay—stay here where guns shoot bubbles and children roast sugar-pillows in summer and my baby can be a baby, a corn-kernel-child, a little longer.

“No, I wouldn’t say gun bubbles,” my husband says. “Bullet is byssukúla. So, the word is basically byssa plus kúla. Byssa is gun—that part’s right. But kúla is more like sphere or ball, not bubble.”

I take this in. “Gun balls,” I say, deflated. “Where did I get ‘bubble’?” I do this sometimes. I let the words slip a little.

“Well, you’re close. Bubble is loftkúla.”

Loft meansair, kúla, ball. Air ball.

I repeat the word kúla to myself, resigned to rewriting half of this essay. Kúla. KOO-la. KOOOO-la.

Where have I heard that before?

Later that night, after the etymology talk, my mind chews on a memory of my midwife. I remember her fingers feeling for my sternum, her measuring tape snaking the hump of my stomach. I remember her explaining how they track the baby’s growth by measuring the outside of me.

Baby bump, I realize. That, too, is kúla.

Pair kúla with gun, it becomes bullet. Pair it with air, it bubbles. Pair it with a woman’s body, it harbors a baby.

The gunman’s bullets were supposedly for the babies. They killed people. They sounded like bubble-wrap being stomped on.

We call her spud, our little sweet potato.

One of the Icelandic words for potato is jarðepli. Apple of the earth. The verb jarða means to earth, as in: to bury. A funeral is a jarðarför—a journey to the earth, to the soil. Our planet is jörð, after the Norse earth goddess. The word fósturjörð, “fetus soil,” means native land. When I hear fósturjörð, I also hear fóstureyðing, fetus-deletion.

I think about my body as my daughter’s native soil, her fósturjörð. I remember falling to the earth—Get on the fucking ground!—outside the supermarket, and inside my kitchen, and on that small plot of Icelandic land with the butt of a gun against my shoulder. Falling in love. Falling pregnant.

I love the potato-ness of a potato even more when I know it is also an earth-apple. Quotation marks really do look like tiny goose feet dipped in ink. A dinosaur kind of is a giant lizard.

Why are you arguing with a murderer, I ask myself. You think it’s personal. It’s not personal. He doesn’t know anything about you. He doesn’t google you. He doesn’t sometimes see your face when he’s trying to fall asleep. He doesn’t care if you get groceries delivered now, even though you used to find it meditative to walk the store aisles. He probably couldn’t have killed you if he tried. You were too far away.

Still, I armor myself in logic. I fist my thoughts and fight. No, he didn’t kill me, but he killed other people. Injured more. How can a murderer call himself pro-life?

Stop asking, I tell myself. You know the answer: there is no answer. He’s crazy. You win.

I can’t drop it, though. When I was pregnant, I learned new facts about bodies and babies. My daughter, I read, was born with all the eggs she will ever have, upwards of four million of them. So in a sense, my daughter was inside me when I was inside my mother. My daughter was inside me in that parking lot in Colorado, long before I fell pregnant, long before I was ready to rewrite the story a doctor told me about myself. The possibility of my grandchildren is inside my daughter. I want the gunman to know this. I want every pained individual whose sweaty hand holds a weapon to know that every person is in fact many people, past, present, future.

But I also want the gunman to be proud of me. See, I want to say, it’s good I wasn’t shot. Look at what good I’ve done. Look at my daughter.

I think I need to feel important to him, special, singled out. Because otherwise my death would have been meaningless. The death of my future, of my future family, would have been meaningless, too.

About the Author

Margrét Ann Thors

Margrét Ann Thors is a writer living in Reykjavík, Iceland. Originally from Fairfield County, Connecticut, she holds a BA, MA, and MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in the English department at the University of Iceland.

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