Reply to a letter from Helga
Translated by Philip Roughton
Kolkustaðir, Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1997
Some people die from what is beyond them. Others die because death has been in them for ages, clamping their veins from within. ey all die. Each in his own way. Some fall to the oor midsentence. Others depart peacefully in a dream. Do their dreams then end, as when the lm is no longer projected onto the screen? Or do their dreams just change in appearance, taking on new light and colors? Is this perceptible in any way to the one who dreams?
My dear Unnur is dead. She died in a dream one night when no one was near. Blessed be her memory.
Personally, I’m in decent enough shape, not counting the sti ness in my shoulders and knees. Old Lady Age is doing her job. Of course, there are moments when you look at your slippers and think how the day will come when the slippers will be stand- ing there—but not you yourself to put them on. But, “welcome to it, when it comes,” as Hallgrímur Pétursson says in his hymn about death. Enough life has sloshed through my chest. I’ve had my taste of it—life. at’s how it is, dear Helga.
Oh, I’ve become a compulsive old man—it’s clear in how I’ve started opening old wounds. But everyone has a door. And every- one wants to let his inner person out that door. And my door— it’s the old one on my departed father’s sheep shed, where the sun shines in through the chinks, long and slender rays between the thin planks. If life exists somewhere, it must be in the chinks. My door has become so crooked and thin and worn out that it’s no longer able to hold the inner from the outer. And maybe that’s precisely what’s good about the carpenter—that he’s not perfect? at in his work there are cracks and chinks, letting in sunshine and life.
Soon I’ll set o for the Great Relocation congenital to all men, dear Helga. And it’s inevitable that people try to lighten their burdens before setting o on such a journey. Of course, it’s quite beside the point writing you this letter now, when everyone is more or less dead or senile, but I’ve decided to jot it down any- way. If you don’t like these scrawls of mine, just toss them out. My words are well meant. I’ve never wished you anything but good—you know that, dear Helga.
Your Hallgrímur died in late winter. His last year, he couldn’t swallow any longer because of the cancer; they couldn’t get any food into him, that giant of a man. He wasted away in their hands at the hospital, and was nothing but skin and bones when I visited him in February. It was sad to see. Blessed be his memory.
Blessed be all things, indeed, that try and have tried to exist.
My nephew Marteinn fetched me from the retirement home, and I get to spend midsummer in a room with a view of the farm where you and Hallgrímur once lived. I let my mind wander over the slopes all around here, smelling sweetly of long-past sunshine. at’s the most one can do these days.
Unnur lay on her deathbed for ve years, four and a half of which she wished to die. In many ways, I came out of that period badly. Nor do I understand what came over her. Little by little, it was as if the good in her was overturned and replaced with reprimands about trivialities. If I spilled juice or bumped into a flower vase while I nursed her, I was scolded for having always been a “damned bungler,” “incapable of any chores.” Might this have been the hardened disposition that existed deep down inside her, but that until then I’d only caught glimpses of?
She stopped getting out of bed and refused to eat, emaciated as she was; she just lay there wasting away due to some invisible sorrow. at familiar old spirit of hers rotted away. Yes, her spirit left her. She grew sharp-tongued and temperamental, no matter how carefully she was coddled. She simply became decrepit, and terribly ill to boot. And the ill may not be judged the same as the healthy. I watched the blue of her eyes grow dim and blacken like the sky over the mountains and felt as if I should be there to provide her company, considering her circumstances. It seemed that she was unhappy with her situation, unhappy having been brought forth into this life, and unhappy at how she’d spent it. For my pains, I was declared an absolute villain who had played a game of deception with her our entire life together. I had never loved her, she said. Ice cold. And then she looked away.
I was as a ectionate to her as could be. Bought her news- papers and boxes of chocolates. Brought out photos of her and me in the haymaking at Grundir, of the old farm, of the sh racks bending beneath lump sh and half-dried cod, of us gather- ing eiderdown and young pu ns on the islets, of me scraping a seal-pup skin and making repairs on the dory in the shed, of Unnur on the Farmall with the milk box on the back, and simply all of the sunshine that I managed to photograph during my life with the old Polaroid camera. We caught a glimpse of you in one of the photos. It was from before Hulda was born, when we did the haymaking together. She pointed at you. Said, “You should have taken her. Not a gelded yearling like me. You always wanted her, not me.”
She pushed the album away. She stared at the foot of the bed with empty eyes. I felt for her. Felt that I loved this helpless, feeble old woman, this doomed individual who had almost no one else in the world. I felt that I’d done right tending our small farm with her all those years. Who else would have cared for her? Tears ran down her cheeks like tiny waves of sorrow. Outside our retirement home, night had come and the tra c had started to settle down. e glimmer of a streetlight peeked in through the room’s window and shone faintly on her tear-moistened cheeks.
Then she died. In the middle of the night. In a dream.
The old ghost that I thought had been put to rest long ago appeared again in Unnur. e specter that folk in our corner of the countryside had conjured up out of sheer irascibility. Wasn’t it Hallgerður who awoke in her, that damned Icelandic habit of never being able to shake o the past or forgive anything? At the retirement home, I’d become “an adulterer,” “a charlatan,” “a downright double-dealer,” and she started expounding for me in small details the lustful plea- sures that I supposedly had from you every roundup. It left me shamefaced, to put it mildly, and it was sheer grace that there were few to hear it when she started shouting about my taking you from behind, giving your heavy breasts a voracious feel and jerking you so hard that your ass cheeks smacked. at’s how she talked: “your heavy breasts.” ese ts of hers would then end in sobs, with her accusing herself of being a gelded, aban- doned yearling. And although she called me a lazybones who could never manage anything nancially or domestically—you know, Helga, that I never stopped working, except during the one week that I was laid up with pneumonia—this hurt me less than the accusations of that countryside rumor from so long ago, which threw salt in my wounds.
What was the incident that ignited the rumor but that never took place, yet led to consequences just as bad—no, even worse!—than if the incident had actually occurred? And is it pos- sible to draw a line between what in fact happened and what the slanderous populace says happened, hanging around their kitch- ens, all worked up from great gulps of co ee, innuendo, and their blather about others? What didn’t occur that Feast of St. Lambert, 1939—yet still occurred in the minds of the blatherers?
Was it when the others had made their way down Hörgsdalur Valley and rounded Framneshæð Hill that I supposedly made my way slowly down the ridge and met you in the grassy hollow by Steinhúsbakkar Slope? And then, so the rumor goes, we walked together and talked about how beautiful the sheep’s wool was when they came down from the mountain that year, how the lambs’ paunches were white as snow, how plump they were, how clean their lines. And I, as Hay O cer for Hörgár Parish, declared I had no need to fear that farmers would be half starv- ing their sheep that year, so well the haymaking had gone. And then—oh yes—I remembered your mark: double half-cropped tip, low-notched, and swallowtailed both sides. And you asked me what mine was again: cropped and notched upper side left, swallowtailed at the tip and upper side right. Precisely. en of course we exchanged a few words about the ram Bassi, whom we’d borrowed from out east in Fljót: how barrel-chested he was, how muscular at the spine. And after exchanging these words about Bassi, our blood churned in a sweet frenzy, and I brushed aside your curls and likened them to snow blowing down a mountain slope, but you laughed and said, “Oh, Bjarni!”
Then I supposedly kissed you, and some sort of overexcited groping took place before I pulled down my trousers as you lifted your sweater and bared your breasts, and next I let my milk- white thighs slap against yours as the whimbrel trilled and the heavy scent of heather saturated the air around us, and we two— scrubby beasts, there in the hollow—became one with the dying growth for a moment or two, and the white seed trailed gelati- nously from your inner thigh down to some blades of withered grass that had become the only witnesses to the sudden blaze that engulfed us.
No less than all of that, apparently.
Is there anything more natural than for such a thing to have occurred? Hasn’t all of creation arranged it so that such chance meetings might indeed take place?
And folk would have made their kitchen insinuations, as is their wont. But that wouldn’t have done any harm, because I would have been modest and begged my Unnur humbly for for- giveness for this wild aberrance, and she doubtlessly would have dealt with it better than my own repulsive defensiveness, which would have made enemies of all who wished to hurt me after the rumor was spread. I would have even tried to make up for it by lavishing her with even greater tenderness, and understood that this earthly life isn’t about slapping against others’ bellies but about a ection and caring for the people closest to you. You and I would have made love and satis ed our lust, thereby putting it out of the picture and allowing me to turn to other matters, to start thinking of and desiring other things.
The fact is it didn’t happen. We weren’t together up in the valley, as those who spread this rumor thought—you know that we just happened to return from the search last and met at the gap above the corral. at’s why we walked together down the slope. But it was enough to spark an incident in people’s minds, with accompanying sighs and contented exhalations—and who can ght against it once a person’s head starts lling with such ideas? And so the rumor of our lustful release spread like wild re, until the gossip reached my own house. I stepped in one day from the spring’s biting cold and rubbed my hands together and sighed. “ is cold we’re having is unheard of,” I said as I walked into the kitchen where Unnur was stooping over her pots.
“Why don’t you go fuck to warm up—I’m sure she’s waiting for you with her legs spread on the other side.”
Her statement stunned me at rst. And then I was furious. I slapped Unnur’s face and told her to guard her tongue. She reddened. en she started wailing crazily and called herself a frigid wretch and said she didn’t understand why I was holding onto her. It would be best if I cut her loose. at I loved you and not her.
I said no.
She said it would be best if I left her and took you as my wife instead. She said that she’d seen how I looked at you, and that I never looked at her like that. at I coveted you. Then she rushed out and shoved herself into the closet. I said, “No. at will never happen!”
She shouted out from the closet and wept pent-up tears that she actually seemed to be ghting against, making her weeping even more poignant to hear. I sat there as if thunderstruck on the master bed. Stared down at the oor. Started thinking about whether I shouldn’t try to polish up the damned oorboards. e cursed boards were starting to peel and crack and could easily put a splinter in someone’s foot.
I was heavyhearted after the cruel slander started spreading around the district; or, shall I say, the cruel slander soon felt like a big air bubble around my heart. I was discontent in my daily occupations, grouchy and impatient, and didn’t know where to direct what was surging within me. I felt as if people were look- ing at me suspiciously. “Damned adulterer,” I read in the glances of my neighbors when I went to the Co-op or to church. Unnur grew distant from me, perhaps because I’d grown insolent and irritated at her sobbing at home.
Inside me, a bug sparked to life, longing to spray its digestive juices on the sweet event that was on everyone’s lips, but which I’d never gotten to experience, though my name was attached to it. I began to desire you, dear Helga. It’s just how you were created; it was no wonder they started spreading the rumor. In doing so, they revealed their own dreams.
Every time I came to visit you and Hallgrímur to loan you worm or stool medicine or do whatever else a friend, neighbor, and hay o cer could, and Hallgrímur was in the East ords, “breaking in something more than a mare,” as you put it, leaving you alone on the farm with your two children, my thoughts were primitive. God alone knows how paltry I was in my soul after news of this nonevent spread; I was bitter at being convicted, without having sipped of the cleansing sweetness of the crime.