You may have heard that there are regions in the far north where the sun doesn’t rise at all in winter, while in summer it shines constantly, even at midnight.
It wasn’t always so.
There was a time when Iceland got as much sunshine in the winter as Spain. Then a peculiar man named Jón Jónsson came along and changed everything.
Jón’s parents knew he was special from an early age. When he was seven he caught a flu that made him want to sleep all day, but there were no curtains on the windows and his room was filled with sunlight. His mother laid him in bed and went out to fetch the shutters, which were made of wood and normally used only during winter storms. When she returned with them under her arm, the room was dark. She thought she was losing her mind: she could see the sun glinting against the window glass, but its rays stopped there; the room itself was mired in a moonless night’s gloom. But there was a glow beneath her sleeping son’s sheets, and peeling them back she found light leaking out between the fingers of Jón’s closed hand.
Carefully, she pried his fingers open.
There was a blinding flash. In an instant the room was filled with sunlight.
Jón woke up, groggy and blinking.
“Jón dear,” said his alarmed mother, “what did you do?”
“I turned off the light,” he replied, and then he did it again: he reached out, and with a motion like catching a fly in the air, he scooped the light from the room, closed his fingers tightly around it, and went back to sleep.
Though Jón’s parents found this amazing, his ability didn’t change their lives. The family trade was shoe making, and they lived comfortably enough. What good could taking sunlight from the air do them? Sometimes Jón would use captured sunlight in place of lanterns at night— lantern oil was expensive, after all, and daylight was free—but to stop the light from escaping before night fell he had to keep his fist closed tightly around it all day, which tired his hand and made it hard to do much else. He tried stashing sunlight in wooden boxes and glass bottles and goatskin bags, but it was no good—after a few minutes it always leaked out. Impressive though it was, his ability didn’t seem to have a practical application.
Jón Jónsson’s parents died when he was still a young man. A sickness swept through their valley and took them very suddenly. They’d only been buried a day when a tax agent came knocking and told Jón that everything his parents owned belonged to the government. They owed a debt of unpaid taxes worth more than their entire estate, and Jón stood to inherit nothing. He cursed the agent and vowed to fight the decision, and even went to plead his case before their assembly at Þingvellir, but to no avail. After months of fruitless protest, he found himself homeless and penniless. He packed up what he could carry on his back and left, and another family moved into the house where he’d spent his youth.
Jón Jónsson spent the next few years drifting from place to place, finding work where he could. He cobbled shoes in Akureyri, gutted fish in Grundarfjörður, and drove sheep down from the highlands in fall. He didn’t make friends easily or stay in one place long. Lodged in him like shrapnel was the conviction that he’d been wronged and was owed a great debt, and it filled him with a bitterness that came spilling out of him at the slightest provocation. He was as curmudgeonly and disagreeable as an old hermit.
One day he was working with a road gang clearing rocks from a lava field. Sitting alone during his lunch break, he was surprised when a strange man dressed in gray and covered with wiry hair popped up from behind a boulder.
“Are you Jón Jónsson?” asked the stranger.
“I am,” Jón said. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Tyr, and I have a gift for you.”
“And why would you give me a gift?” asked Jón. “I’ve never met you before.”
“Never mind that,” Tyr said. “Here it is.” From behind his back he produced a small, black box made of obsidian. “It’s yours if you want it. I have only one condition: if you should earn any money by use of it, give me ten percent.”
It was finely crafted and quite beautiful, and Jón thought perhaps he could sell it. As to why Tyr couldn’t simply sell the box himself, Jón guessed he was a criminal of some sort, and to show his face in a town would’ve been too dangerous.
“Five percent and you’ve got a deal,” said Jón—not because ten percent was too much, but because he liked to feel he’d gotten the upper hand in every transaction.
“All right,” said Tyr, and he handed over the box so quickly that Jón wished he’d demanded two and a half percent instead of five. Before he could renegotiate, Tyr had ducked behind the boulder again, and when Jón went to look for him, he saw only a puff of smoke lingering in the air.
Jón tucked the black box into his knapsack, and at the end of the workday, he went into the town of Egilsstaðir to try and sell it. He offered it first to Grímur Snorrisson, the jeweler, but Grímur didn’t know what to make of it. “Obsidian’s wonderful for making knives,” the jeweler said, “but why would anyone carve a box from it?”
“I’ve no idea,” said Jón, “but I’ll sell it to you for ten crowns.”
“You must be out of your mind!” said Grímur. “It isn’t worth two.”
Next he tried to sell it to Steffi Ólafsdóttir, the wealthiest woman in town, for eight crowns, but she told Jón to go jump in a volcano. In desperation he cut his price to five crowns and offered it to Sveinn Swansson, who dealt in rare and precious objects, but though Sveinn said he’d never seen anything like it, he claimed to be short on cash. “Would you take four?” Sveinn offered.
“I won’t be swindled!” Jón declared, and he stalked off with the box wedged tightly under his arm.
The sun was setting as he trudged back to the simple boarding-house where he was staying.
Because the stingy landlord had only given Jón a single candlestick to light his room at night, Jón used his old trick and swiped a bit of fading daylight. (He took it from behind a sheep pen where no one ever went; he didn’t want anyone to see a strange patch of black hanging in the air and start asking questions.) He snuck up to his room with the light clenched tightly in his fist. He’d meant to wait until it was good and dark to release it, but after a few minutes there was a knock at his door. It was the landlord, wanting to know if Jón could come outside to help him round up a cow that had wandered into the wrong field.
Jón cursed his luck and hid his glowing hand behind his back. He didn’t want to help, but it seemed bad policy to refuse the landlord.
“I’ll be there in one minute,” Jón said, and closing the door he looked around for somewhere to stash his daylight. If I’m quick, he thought, perhaps it won’t have all leaked away by the time I return.
His eyes fell upon the obsidian box. Since no container was really secure, it seemed as good a place as any, so he stuffed in the light, replaced the box’s lid, and went outside. When he returned a few minutes later and peeked inside the box, he was astounded to discover that none of the daylight had escaped.
“What’s this!” he exclaimed, then realized he must have made a mistake. “Perhaps there was more light in here to begin with than I remember,” he said. “Yes, that must be it.”
Just to make certain, before he went to work the next morning, he took another handful of daylight from behind the sheep pen and stashed it in the box. When he returned in the evening, he found the box as full of light as it had been that morning. He was so unready for this that he let it slip through his fingers and it leaked out everywhere, filling his small room with daylight just as the sun was disappearing outside.
Jón leaped up and down, whooping for joy: “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!”
A moment later the landlord was banging on his door and shouting, “How many candles are you burning in there, Jónsson? Put them out before you catch the building on fire!”
“Why, I’m not burning any!” Jón replied, and started to laugh.
The landlord threw the door open and stomped into the room. He had no sooner entered than he backed stiffly out again, eyes wide. “What in heaven’s going on?” he said, his voice odd and high.
“You’re dreaming,” Jón replied. “Better go back to bed.”
“Yes, yes, back to bed,” the landlord mumbled. “Quite right.” And he shuffled away down the hall.
Jón closed his door and got to thinking. If this box could hold on to daylight securely, perhaps there was money to be made from it. First, though, he had to understand a few things. How much light could it hold, and how long could it be held on to? The next day, he set off to find out.
Jón Jónsson saddled his horse and rode up into the highlands. When he came to a barren place where there were no people around for miles, he began to gather as much daylight as he could and stuff it into his box. For three days he rode back and forth in neat rows, as if tilling a vast field, so as not to miss a single ray. He climbed peaks so he could pull light from highest reaches of the sky, leaving cones of darkness above him and acres of it behind in long, zagging stripes. From a distance ...