by Auður Jónsdóttir
Trans. Meg Matich
After the Quake
What’s your name?
Unfamiliar eyes stare down at me.
What’s your name? The voice repeats.
Yours, says the voice. Your name. Do you know your name?
Do you remember what happened?
A kind face looks down at me. A man in a winter coat helps me to my feet. My legs are limp like dough. I falter, hold tightly to him to stop myself from falling. Strong hands in stiff gloves steady me. He smells of something familiar, something that bees make—honey—and trees, I think. His presence is soft, so soft. Do you remember what happened? He asks me again, but I don’t respond this time, the words stick to my palate and gum together in a creaturely moan.
His eyes survey me, he exhales steam, rapidly, as if he’s been running. We’re standing just outside of the park next to a double-lane highway, I recognize everything around me. The snow on the sidewalk by the park has been trampled down by uncountable feet; the sidewalk leads past houses with big windows and glistens in the low light of winter, but why am I here, across from this man, by myself?
The sidewalk is just a few steps from us and nearly blends together with the snow-white field. A little off in the distance, heavy traffic whistles by us like an unhalting plague of locusts.
Are you okay? The man asks.
I…don’t know, I say, feeling as if my mouth can’t articulate properly.
It’s pretty unlucky that you landed on the cement, you’re badly bruised, he says and I realize he must be right because it hurts when I try to smile. What should I say? I need to sound normal or I’ll never get away from him. Him who? Away where? I can’t riddle out either, I need to sleep, to fall asleep.
Do you remember anything that happened? He asks once more, tightening his grip. His concerned eyes look through me. Brilliant blue below a dark blue cap, over ruddy cheeks. So piercing I can’t look away. The world turns before my eyes, but I manage to mumble: there was a red bus here, a bus on top of a bus. I hush up, in the search of the right words. My pulse quickens. I have to find the word, now, now! Two story? I say, finally, quizzically. Like the buses in other places, abroad.
Now you’re imagining things, my friend. Double-deckers are in a lot of places, but not Iceland, he says as if he’s talking to a child. Except, well, were there tourists in it?
Yes, Ívar saw…
The scream is piercing, but fragmentary, like the screech of a seabird. We both brace ourselves, I’m taken aback by the scream that seems to have come out of my own body. I can’t catch my breath. Another scream is coming, another scream wants out.
Where is he?
Who? the man asks.
My son. He was here. I pointed out the bus to him and he…where is he?
Where did you see him last? He asks, confused.
Here, before I woke up. Did you see him? I shout in exhaustion.
Was he here in the park?
Or at the entrance on the path, I choke out, as I frantically survey the road. I resist the urge to faint as I look out over the park. Small footprints wash together with a smattering of larger ones in the snow on the path. I cup my head in my hands, close my eyes tightly, hoping that I’ll see right when I open them again. I wave him off: Run, there, behind the trees! Go! I’ll go there, to the bus pavilion there…the shelter. We’ll…
How old is he? the man asks.
I try to remember, but nothing comes. How old is my son?
He’s only little, I say. I’m crying.
The man takes off, calling Ívar’s name, shouting that he’s going to go to Kjarvalsstaðir, the art gallery across the park, his jacket flapping against the back of his knees. I run toward the street, my feet have lost their bones, they wobble under my weight, but I cannot fall, and I cannot stand on my feet, though I run, no matter what, I trip. Where are you? Ívar, my Ívar, where are you? Mamma is here.
The taste of blood in my mouth. My sopping thighs rub together. I wet myself during the seizure. This is not happening. Where is he? The pain in my forehead is worsening, something is constricting my blood vessels; did I hit my head? Did he run into traffic? Then an ambulance would’ve come. Right? My feet flounder. Too limp. My body doesn’t have any more power. Right now, when I need to hold myself—all of myself—together. There doesn’t seem to be blood in my hair, despite the headache, I’ve gotten off lightly. But him?
The memory is oblique. We were walking. I held his little hand. He laughed. See, mamma, look at the cars! Yes, I laughed—or not?—I laughed and then, yes, the red bus drove past. I said: Ívar, look! Look at the big bus. It has two stories!
The pieces start to fall into place. How long did I lay there? Where did Ívar go? Did somebody take him?
Oh my god!
Each second stands still, I run out of the park, I see heavy traffic but he’s nowhere to been found. I run back into the park. Where in the hell is my cellphone? Why didn’t I tell that guy to call the police? Maybe he already has? I need to get to a phone.
I trip over my own feet. I scramble back up. Run, fall, run, maybe he’s in the building, what did the man say it was called? My heart beats furiously, but it can’t burst, not now, it propels me over the snow-covered field that seems to stretch on forever.
I throw myself through the open doors of the cafe in the big building. The occupants look up from their coffee at the violent sound. They stare at me, shrieking: Call the police! My son! He’s lost! Ívar. My son. Help me! Call them! Call!
Did you hear what I said, Saga?
Saga, I’m Saga! A deep sense of relief pervades me; I remember my name.
Ya, I heard, I mumble.
You were in danger, says a deep voice with breath so lipsmackingly warm that I get the feeling it’s been marinating in coffee for half a century, the fragrant, hot sips coming off of every word. The voice is coming from a bulky torso in a white smock. All is white, even the bed, the blinds that hang over the window, the air carries as if in a hot haze. My hand aches where a needle’s been stuck into the back of it, carefully slipped under the skin. In reality, my entire body hurts; there’s a tender ache in my upper arms and an unbearable, painful tingling in my hips. A machine counts out my heartbeats, steady and strong, but then I remember that terrible dream and my pulse goes into hyperdrive. I ran in an endless field of white and called: Ívar! Was I looking for him or had I dreamed it all? Where is Ívar?
Ívar? I ask the doctor, at a loss.
It takes me a moment to find the right words. My son. Ívar is my son.
My son, I say loudly, feeling the words clunk around in my mouth like a heavy load in the washer. He was with me. I don’t remember anything else.
Wait just a moment, I’ll speak to the officer outside.
Why are the police here?
Don’t worry. Don’t excite yourself.
Time is hulking, hefty. The seconds hardly budge, they don’t want to press reality forward. Or is it reality, after all, this viscous mist? What about reality before, before everything became incomprehensible? We were going for a walk, I vaguely remember, or am I editing the events?
I watch a scene unfold before me, so crisp it must have happened: Ívar was excited to go out. Come on, mom, he said. Out in the snow? I asked, shivering playfully to make him laugh. Bursting with joy. No preschool on Saturdays, our days to sing together and see the world. What then?
The thoughts are uncomfortable; I force them away from me as sobs begin to break in my chest and a lump fixes itself in my throat. Every cell, frozen. A strange image in my mind’s eye: a frightened girl with a blue striped apron; the soup of the day in a black crock; a striped lady cake and butter bread on a plate in a glass case, a shrimp lain like flower petals atop a nest of mayonnaise and—and she’s confused. Is she only in my imagination? No. I called out—right? I stood, I believe, I screamed in the café in Kjarvalsstaðir. And then, and then, and then, I don’t know what—then.
Everything went black.
Now, everything is white. Or gray.
How did all of this happen? I am going to find a way outside of myself. This gargantuine gray reality.
I will find Ívar.
I tear the needle out, clamber out of bed, I’m dizzy, I turn in a circle, grab onto the bed, the unsteady railing. The machine beeps—quicker, quicker. I am going to get out of here.
Not so fast, my dear, another voice that sounds younger than the first.
It belongs to a man in black. Thank god it’s loud. If it was bad news, the worst news, then he would soften his voice. I stare expectantly officer, imposing in his uniform.
He looks coolly, but not unkindly, at me. Then he says: It’s my understanding that you underwent two grand mal seizures in a row. They could have been fatal.
Do you know about my son? I hear myself call in a shrill voice.
We found him in one piece, the officer says. It’s lucky that we didn’t get there any later.
My relief is inexpressible. But what does he mean by we didn’t get there any later?
The little tyke made it all the way to Snorrabraut, says the officer. He was waiting for a chance to cross the road. He’d already crossed a few streets. I don’t want to know what would have happened if he’d made it to the main road. Just lucky that man acted as fast as he did.
Passerby called us. I understand that he called the police, anyway. A little bit later, a girl at Kjarvalstadir called us: you fell unconscious in the café.
I look in the eyes as I try to remember how events unfolded; memories flash and fade in my mind. I see myself running in the snow and don’t know if it’s my own memory. A dread that I’ll never see Ívar again grips me with iron fists. The officer is so young; he reminds me of my brother Guðni, who wore the same kind of uniform to work. His eyes are boyish, but seem jaded, as if he’s seen more in his time than many ever will. I get the impression he’s glad that he’ll never have to see anything like it—whatever it was—again.
Did you find him? I ask gently, relieved that I could word the sentence naturally.
Both of us, me and Dröfn, my colleague. The boy handled himself well. He told us he was on the way to find a doctor for his mom. I think that he was trying to go to Domus Medica.
What? I snap.
Ya, he was determined to find a doctor. He’s got an unusually strong sense of direction, and he’s determined for such a young boy. I take my hat off to him, the officer says, smiling as he dangles his cap in his right hand.
Where is he now?
With his father.
And everything is okay?
He was pretty pleased with his ride in the police car, but he’ll be happy to see you.
You stand by the side of my bed. Laughter lights up your face, your golden locks. Your baby teeth graze my cheek, little nips of love, like a puppy beside himself with joy. Weren’t you going to the doctor? Or were you perhaps using the occasion to explore, like Palle when he woke up alone in the world?
Mamma is here, I whisper as I breathe you in greedily, grip your light body tightly and draw you toward me, still uncertain whether you’re there in dream or in flesh.
You are—and that is enough. My dear, dear Ívar.
Your laughter deepens, drives itself inward in its profound purity. It is good. It is good to see how pleased you are to see me, but I’m also strange to you here, in this place, I can see it in the clipped blink of your chocolate eyes. And no wonder! Mamma in a white gown in a white bed with white curtains and a needle in the back of my hand. Yes, a strange place, my lovely little boy. You should not know how frightened I am.
But you laugh and I am in the clouds on a high peak, at the edge of a precipice, where rock crumbles and tumbles into an abyss, but I’m surveying the beauty of the world, how the deep valleys seem to glitter, guarded by basalt bluffs, when the sun shines, and I see, I see the immense beauty of it all. A pain in my heart. One misstep and everything is nothing, everything is nothing if I fall.
Come on, we’ll let your mom sleep, your father whispers while I’m resting in this new vision, this moment of joy amid great danger. The sensation is intense, though short-lived; it rests inside my body. No, no, stay, I long to call out, but my body is heavy; my lips hardly move, my eyelids outweigh my determination.
Now, you know that mamma is here, the voice whispers. She just needs to nap.
Mamma home, Ívar implores with childish stubbornness.
Tomorrow, says his dad. She’ll come tomorrow. Now we have to go and get some ice cream.
They fall silent; their sounds swept away like shadows. But I’m still struggling to remember how old my son is.
Is he turning four? No, he has to be three. He’s definitely three years old, he had his third birthday—right? But he must be older. How old is my son?
The question consumes me until I sink into my disquieted self, crying as I’m swallowed by a heaving wave of oblivion.
The darkness encloses me, locks me in. I reach out into emptiness, but can’t find a way out. Suddenly, the ache in my head and the soreness in my shoulders intensifies. Thirst overtakes me, my tongue feels dry. Somebody replaces the needle in my hand and holds a glass to my lips. I sink down into the dark dream.
The darkness swells. It melds together into a hard core that lights up my surrounds as it forms, little by little, a thick tube. The cylinder looks solid, gleams pitch in the light. I grab onto it, but it’s made of something slippery and it rolls out of my reach just as I touch it, rolls across a bleached floor and the light cuts into my eyes, then pain, unbearable. A spike pierces my forehead, my cerebrum, the nape of my neck.
I wake up crying. Somebody gives me an injection and adjusts the needle in my hand.
A man’s voice: Was that her third seizure in 24 hours?
A woman’s voice answers: She had two yesterday.
I sink. Deeper and deeper into the hot dream until I glimpse bottom, the cylinder waiting there for me. I dare not touch it, stare instead at the black mass to block out the light that surrounds me. It burns my eyes. But I can’t stare at the tube forever, I have to look up.
It would have been better not to.
Eyes, burning suns.
A Woman of the Old Ways
Did you have bad dreams? The nurse asks me, smiling. She reminds me of her colleagues in old films, where nurses might be called matrons or nursemaids. A buxom, middle-aged woman with light hair combed into a thick bun. Her presence is like an image in a slide show. Odd pictures, projected on a wall, a pause, blink of darkness, until the next appears, and so on.
I’m much too confused to answer her questions, but I do my best to grasp my situation. I am in a hospital and I must have had a seizure because I’m very weak. My muscles ache, so I must be alive. The woman continues to speak, more to herself than to me, saying that those in my condition almost always dream nothing or something nonsensical.
Dreams are nonsense, I say, marveling at the strength in my voice, as if my voice is speaking for me.
My mom wouldn’t’ve said that, says the nurse.
She read dreams, forecasting the future, interpreting the past. But, what’s more: she sought the self.
Has she died?
She’s gone to sleep, the woman answers, an indelible smile shapes her lips. She adjusts the duvet, the pillows, and pours me a fresh glass of water. I don’t ask any more questions. My head is heavy like a pumpkin and it takes effort to blink.
Do you remember what you dreamed? She asks.
I run my tongue over my teeth. I don’t remember many details. My mind is fantastically empty. A shocking white light. Its rays bathe my cerebrum, they heat my thoughts, and I’m steeped in confusing flashes of images bound to certain words.
I dreamed of sun, I say, hesitating. I look inquisitively at her and see that her smile has grown. Or suns, I think there was more than one.
The woman stops smiling. Sun symbolizes good, she says. But suns, that’s an altogether more complicated matter, I think. But I’m no specialist. I’m certainly not my mom. Try to get some sleep, that’ll make it all better. Just like the saving sunlight.
When it isn’t burning a hole in the ozone layer, I mumble.
The nurse is offended. Icelanders don’t think like that, she retorts and smiles again, but the smile isn’t indelible this time, it’s somehow external and has metamorphosed into the polite smile she almost certainly uses on her colleagues, when she wants them to look up a status, or on stewardesses, when she wants a glass of water.
Sweet dreams, she says indifferently, adjusting the duvet once more as she rushes out with a heavy swish of her thighs.
When can I go home? I call after her, suddenly not ready for her to leave. But by then, she’s gone.
I don’t know if I fell asleep, but I jerk when that sporadic slideshow begins again and now a familiar woman suddenly stands before me, pale from worry and tension. She seems to have shrunken since I last saw her.
This one’s stuck in her ways, too, I think, like the nurse—and the thought seems to sound too loudly in my head. I try to smile but can’t manage it; she seems so defeated at the sight of my suffering, but I manage to find the right words: What happened?
My mother is at a loss. She says: Shouldn’t I be asking you that?
Really, I don’t know. Why am I here? Is it… I try to remember the name of the place. Emergency room. That’s where I am, right?
A look of wonder crosses her face, and she lifts up a hand-knitted purple cardigan that was probably intended as a Christmas gift. Her fingers are swollen, and I get the impression that the delicate cardigan is too heavy for her, so I quickly slip my arms into the garment. She says, in a muffled voice: Saga, my Saga, if you don’t know, I’ll just speak to the doctor.
I had a seizure, right?
You had two in a row, and a third, here, as I understand it. And that’s all aside from the fact that Ívar got lost.
Yes, my love, she says, blowing on her fingertips. I thought you knew that. Bergur said that you knew. That the pair had come to visit you.
My heart is hammering; acid is swimming in my stomach as I stare at her, my mother, who is torn to rags, and says: They came yesterday morning, and thank god they were gone by the time you had the third seizure. Bergur said that you were so happy to see the boy. You must have forgotten it after the seizure.
She sees the searching look on my face and continues: Love, the police found Ívar, don’t you remember? Come now, you’re coming home and resting. Or maybe it’s safer to speak to the doctor again?
Is Ívar okay?
Yes, love. I said so. The last I heard, he was happily watching Frozen with Bergur. He’s been in good hands while you’ve been here. They extended your stay another day after the third seizure.
I look at my mother, who’s looking at me, while I try to make sense of all of this information. Her eyes are decisive, but they’re search me, and she can’t, at that moment, hide it. I see that she’s in pain, in her arms or calves, somewhere, my mother is always in pain when she’s tired.
The worry wrinkles over the bridge of her nose make her green eyes seem piercing. She’s thrown her hair—light red with little sprinkles of gray, usually swept into careful locks—into a careless top knot and fastened it with a clamp, braced on the crown of her head. The heft of hair sways above her white eyebrows and thin, freckled skin. She’s thin, as she was as a teenager, a little taller than both of her daughters, although we’re both considered tall.
She looks affectionately at me while she pulls my sweater over my head and tinkers gingerly with my hair like a meticulous master stylist, though she still manages to attest to her own stubbornness, saying: they decided against sending you for further tests. Even though you have epilepsy, I still find it strange. You remember almost everything—at least, you will after a little while—right?
I don’t remember, I say truthfully, but I’m struggling with my conscience and thinking I should lie because she’s so uneasy.
We can only hope. It’s been more than a decade since you last had a seizure, she reminds me. But I remember that you always needed to sleep a hell of a lot after an episode. And, then, you only had one. You must be exhausted after three, and that’s why you forgot it all. She looks at me with an expression of unsteady assurance, as if she’s, in fact, trying to comfort herself.
Ya, I say and then I collapse into the arms of this thin woman, like the child that I once was. She’s taken aback, but puts her arms around me as she asks, one last time, whether we shouldn’t speak to the doctor. I don’t know how you were when he discharged you, she sighs, but I am certain you’d be allowed to stay another night if he saw you now.
I don’t know mom, I say. Maybe I’m coming around. I think I’m starting to remember. So many things. But when I try to think about something, it disappears. I think I’ve forgotten, too, how old Ívar is, but I remember now, I think. He’s three, right?
The worry lines in her forehead deepen as she tries to make sense of me.
Right, mom? Answer me! I demand, my voice cracking. Is he three, Ívar? Is he?
Yes, my love. Ívar is just under three and a half years now. Let’s go home. Let’s get you out of here now, she says, in a husky, girlish voice. At least you remember us. You’ll remember everything once you’ve gotten some more sleep and some lamb soup.
My Son’s Father
We could buy some sort of GPS for Ívar, Bergur says on the other end of the line, condescendingly. He tries to modulate the emotion in his voice as he rattles off ideas: a specially fitted GPS armband, or something sewn into his clothes?
He suggests, however, keeping the armband a little loose, considering how quickly he seems to outgrow his clothes. I shift on the telephone bench. I’m having trouble answering his questions because I can’t concentrate. I want to ask him why he isn’t with me.
Ya, is that so? I mutter finally. The idea is, to put it mildly, unlike him. Under typical circumstances, it’d be me trying to sell him peace-of-mind devices, and he’d mumble something distractedly in response. He should be the calm one; me, the stressed one. Right? Maybe the seizures are to blame for my perception of the situation, skewed and slanted.
I vaguely recollect a similar, far-off feeling after my seizures in the old days; everything seemed odd and distant. The feeling stayed with me, though I don’t remember the seizures themselves. Why is our family portrait in his toy trunk? He must have been playing with it. I bend toward the chest, tug it along the floor, and set the picture on the sideboard of the bench, leaning it against the wall. I look. A biting feeling shoots through my body, blinds me. I ask: where are you?
At home, he says.
At your place. Of course! I say slowly, blinking. I feel a sudden tightness in my chest. Did I hope it had all been a figment of my imagination? The facts are become clearer. In my mind, he’s smiling at me with his Bergssvipur, that Bergur look, his good nature showing through as he blinks closed one of his eyes. The slideshow in my head is so fast that I can’t make out each image. They’re flickering, unclear, and I can hardly trust them.
I focus on the vague outlines of what was once here: the apartment was different. I remember a Persian rug on the floor by the telephone bench—or something? But it hurts to try to recall. The tears gather at the edges of my eyes, ready to push their way out; I can’t think about it, the pain shoots toward my head, and my stubbornness, so long a part of me, can’t keep it at bay. Why is he talking like everything is normal? Where did I really think Bergur was? I called him without even noticing—he’s on speed dial—so he’d know that I had had another seizure; someone has to listen to me and he’s the most important of anyone.
But is that everything? I can’t be alone, mom is definitely going to come back, I can’t cry.
Saga, are you listening to me? Bergur asks. Should we buy him something?
Isn’t it… I breathe deeply before I complete the sentence: false security? I have to speak very carefully, I’m still having trouble saying some things aloud, as if I’ve lost control over all of my most delicate thoughts.
No. We’ll keep our eyes on him, too, he protests hopefully. I’ll just pop out and grab one.
Just as I’m about to answer him, an oppressive drowsiness bears down on me, forcing me to bend my neck. I curl up in the recliner, stiffening with panic that I’ll have another seizure. But Bergur exhales in resignation and asks why I always need to decide everything.
How’s that? I say, letting out a sigh: the heaviness in my head has gone away as quickly as it came.
You’re always so afraid for him—I can’t understand why you’re against getting him some sort of extra security. We can’t risk him wandering off again, he says with heaviness in his voice.
I want more than anything to tell him that I am not at all against the idea but the accusation in his voice sets me off: Don’t you trust me? I ask, irritated that I can’t seem to steady my voice. I’m struggling to pronounce words because my tongue is horribly sore and swollen and tastes of old blood.
I trust you, he says hesitantly. I do not trust your body.
The silence screams. He’s just as clueless as I am, but I can’t get myself to reproach him: served you two well enough so far, I say, quickly, as if the words had spoken themselves; they leave a bad taste in my mouth.
What? Your body? He asks confused.
And you think it’s acceptable to leave your son’s life just hanging in the balance?
What else? I snap so quickly that it surprises even me. He’s so sanctimonious: hanging our son’s life in the balance? The old Bergur understood me well enough to use a quip to make something good come from the bad, but now he’s hesitating to answer and I’m finding it strangely satisfying. In our way, we’re like a big sister and a little brother—and we look that way in the picture. The picture. In the picture, I look happier—and this happier version of myself seems to deflate me.
There, I look just a smidge taller than him because I’d worn heels that were as high as I could trust myself to wear. Most days he’s just a little taller than me–but on that day, I’d also fashioned an unusually voluminous hairstyle. I’d given myself a blowout, and pinned my light red hair back in such a way that the locks seemed to twirl around one another in fire tongues. He looks slender, like always, but strong in a tailored suit, his umber hair slicked back, his beard, which he’d grown for the occasion, carefully groomed. Dark eyes gleam that like Ívar’s when he’s joyful.
The picture was taken on the day he received his name, not at the hospital, but later, as is tradition: Ívar Bergsson. We’re holding him in between us. He’s tiny in his white baptismal gown, the one Bergur bought for him during the Literary Festival in Hamburg. A dribbly smile on his face. I still remember it! It was a sunny day, I remember, yes, I remember, and my blood starts to pump along with the thought, the memory still makes me feel a consuming joy. And relief: I recall the event clear as crystal; it’s still settled in my mind, though it’s a fragment.
Sex and birth, Bergur says, breaking the silence, still probably stewing because I’ve snapped at him.
Aren’t they two sides of the same coin? I ask, tired, but I force myself to say it aloud, a little satisfied that I found the words so quickly.
What are we talking about, Saga? He asks.
Our tax deduction, I hear myself say.
Do you always have to be funny?
No, no, I say, surprised that he’d ask something so stupid. I’m dizzy. I need to end the call and ask him to come to me, but first I have to tell him that I don’t understand why he’s not here. Why am I acting so hostile toward him?
Bergur heaves a sigh. I know that it’s difficult for you to talk to me, as it stands, but it doesn’thelp anybody to quibble, least of all Ívar, he says. Are you sure that you don’t need to lie down?
Yes, I exhale, too tired for a drawn-out argument. I ask him who picked me up from the hospital.
Today? He flips over on his belly like a dog showing submission.
Don’t you remember? He asks, confused.
After a seizure, you’re often confused for a while, I respond defensively. Everything slips away.
He lowers his voice: Are you sure that’s normal? You’ve been talking strangely.
Yes, I’ve been under observation for the past few days. Who picked me up?
Well, your mother. Of course.
He’s barely finished the sentence when I remember my mother’s hair. That strange tangle! She never combs her hair up into a nest—except when she’s ill. Was it because I’m sick? I rock in my seat as I search for an answer. I’m fine, it’s normal to be a little lost.
It’s all coming back now—how she opened the car door for me, fastened me into my seatbelt, and smiled, even though she didn’t want to smile; I saw it in her. I saw that she wanted me to believe that everything was fine, that she was fine. She talked about Ívar. What did she say? Where was Ívar now?
Ívar is with you, right? I ask, holding my voice steady.
Yes, but he’s in preschool today, Bergur answers. He’s been with me every minute and I told him that I’d pick him up after school. I thought that was the best thing for him, to keep things calm. He was really sensitive at first, as you might imagine. But Saga, do you really not remember how you got home?
No, no, I do remember it, I’m just a little confused. My memory is…taking a while to catch up. Because I just woke up, I say, but I feel like I’m speaking too slowly, even though my speech is fluent.
But more to the point, you had three grand mal seizures. Do you remember anything that happened? He asks.
I remember almost everything, I say, automatically. And the rest is coming back. It was like this before, back then. I haven’t had a seizure in so long.
Not when we lived together, Bergur says, sounding sorry. Why now, Saga?
I don’t know.
Look, just don’t work too much!
No, I say, but I feel a new panic rising. Work? Where do I work? I put my hand over my mouth to stop the question from coming out.
You have to think about Ívar, Bergur says, this time without accusation.
I’m only thinking of him.
I know, I’m sorry, I’m being too harsh, he mumbles, embarrassed. I just think, well, I just think that it’s a little more than just uncomfortable that you don’t remember everything. Can you even be with Ívar in these circumstances?
Do you remember the name of the midwives that took Ívar into their arms, I snap. The question is going to sound just as ridiculous to him as it does to me.
What are you talking about? Should I remember that?
Their names were Hrafnhildur and Anna María, I answer solemnly, though I can tell I’m in freefall.
Is that so?
It crossed my mind earlier. Maybe because I’d just gotten home from the hospital.
Bergur laughs slowly. You’re right, I don’t remember their names, he admits, bemusedly, and chuckling quietly when he says that that proves it—my memory is just fine.
Yeah, I say. Their names repeat in quick succession in my head. The strangest thing is…I pause to find the right words and then, with effort, continue: I don’t think I remembered it before now.
What do you mean?
Maybe because I…never thought about it.
No, no, you were just in the hospital, Bergur says and his voice softens. Maybe I don’t remember the names of the midwives, Saga, but I will never forget him lying there, still bloody from birth, across your chest, newly come into the world. I remember when I held him for the first time and you said: It’s him, our son. And the doctor hurried with him to the recovery room.
But we remember that, I say, and my love for my son floods over me like a warm bath.
Yes, he says, we’re not free from heartache. We can have that. But now you have to lie down. I’m serious. Just listen for once!
Well, that’s new, he blurts out, and immediately regrets it. I’m sorry, I didn’t intend…
It’s okay, I say, puzzled by the unexpected slip. I don’t want to fight with him. I just want to talk to him. Most of all, I want to ask: why aren’t you here with me?
But I can’t do it; I don’t want him to know that my memory is full of holes, or so it seems to me, and now they’re overtaking me, the midwives: Hrafnhildur and Anna María. And I hurry to say goodbye. The mirror is the only one I can trust. I smile at it; it smiles back, just as unnaturally, at me.
I came home this morning, I say to the mirror as clearly as I can. Mom picked me up. Ívar is with Bergur, where the Persian rug is now. He’ll be there today because I had three grand mal seizures, Bergur said. Mom ran home to grab meat soup, her Icelandic meat soup. I don’t need to be afraid, she’ll be right back.
The mirror looks obtusely, insistently at me, hefty above the telephone bench in its thick, wooden frame—a frame that Bergur found at Kolaport and cleaned up in our backyard on Ránargata on a warm summer day. I remember that! I say to the mirror, which smiles back, honestly this time, and it seems to delight in the knowledge, along with me, that I know my own face.
The mirror image brightens. My eyes widen, making it easier to discern the distorted face reflected back, though my right eye is engulfed by swelling; the mossy green color lends them their former sense of tranquility, but the whites are still bloodshot, their gaze, feral.
Bergur wouldn’t have described them as tranquil; he often said that I had beautiful, expressive eyes: there’s turbulence under there, and just looking at you makes me yearn, he said when we were still teenagers. He thought it sounded sexy—so did I.
But something else entirely flickers in my eyes, though I feel safer because I remember his words from long ago. Fear sweeps away the gaze that the smile sparked, and my eyes seem to shrink again. The words resound in my head, reflecting him—standing there, smiling shyly across from me. The words have lived inside of me. I feel like it’s been so long since I’ve thought of them, recalled them, but now they’re there.
My lips are red, maybe years of caking on lipstick has stained them. No, I see the outline of a cut on my lower lip, where I must have bitten it until it bled. I don’t notice the pain until I see it in the mirror—a rust red cut. It reminds me of meat, chopped hastily, roughly.
I look like I’ve been badly beaten. My forehead is a deeper shade of purple than the cardigan from my mother, my face is swollen. The bridge of my nose is wide, and just a little too deep; my nose, too large, has always reminded me of a ski jump for ants, but now it seems smaller, sunken into the swelling that leads from my right eye to my left cheekbone. My hair is disheveled, especially my bangs, which lick upward instead of forming a straight line over my brow; next time, I’ll have to go to a stylist who has the good sense not to cut bangs on a curly-haired woman. I look like a monstrous guinea pig. A sorry sight who hasn’t got the faintest idea about anything, except the deep pain that seems to come with thinking about Bergur. Why is nobody with me?
I can’t be alone, I know as much. There’s no warning before I have a seizure. I could fall at any time. Somebody will have to check on me, keep tabs, at least for a while. But who should I call? And how? I lost my cellphone, all my contacts, during one of the seizures. There’s nobody: the silence of the missing cell is screaming. Normally, the phone never stops ringing because everyone is calling, all the time, all the time. That memory distresses me, too. Why did all of those people need to reach me? Maybe somebody needs to reach me now, but all I have is a cordless phone with an unlisted number. I’m alone in the mists of a distant planet.
And when did these roses get here?