From Iceland — Faces


Published October 6, 2006

Our house had once been a two-storey affair with a basement, but then the second floor was destroyed in a fire, and the roof collapsed onto the first. After that, the house looked like a venerable old lady who has pulled her hat down over her eyes. It was clad in rusty corrugated metal and leaned charmingly into the wind. In the yard stood an elegant birch tree that, upon losing its battle with the first violent storm after we moved in, made an excellent bridge leading up to the balcony. There was a ghost in the tiny basement apartment, a lovesick old woman who had the habit of lying next to people when they awoke and looking soulfully into their eyes.
One morning, soon after we moved into the house and I was allocated the bedroom that looked out over the spacious yard, I woke up positively convinced that I could fly. I announced as much to Jamie, my friend and next-door neighbour, who usually agreed with me about everything – until the day when I convinced him to run away from home with me. This most faithful of friends denied point-blank that I could fly. I tried to appeal to his intelligence, explaining that it could only happen in a really stiff wind, and then only if I went outside in a great wide coat and spread it out like wings against the wind; then I would take flight and could glide along the gutter on the edge of the roof. Admitting, of course, that if I let go of the gutter I was in trouble. But it was enough to hold on with one finger.
He didn’t think so.
I found this utter disbelief on the part of my friend strangely enervating. The next time it was fiercely windy I went out into the yard in my parka and took position on a big rock beneath the bedroom window. I must have known deep down how it would turn out, for I felt distinctly ashamed of myself for acting like this; after all, I was seven years old. But I had to make sure, so I opened the wings of the parka into the autumn winds. Nothing happened. It then became clear to me that I’d dreamed it all, and that there were ruthless boundaries between worlds.
Ever since that time, the house, which has long since disappeared from the face of the earth, followed me. Though I only lived there for about three years, I never live anywhere else. My dreams of that house are always populated by bus number five and a large tomcat. The house, which may be about to topple over or may be newly renovated, is my state of being at any given time. The bus, which sometimes glides along inside the house, sometimes careens driverless down the street at a hundred and forty, and sometimes stands rusted and forlorn in a suburban parking lot, is the movement and direction my life is taking. And the cat in the house, which is sometimes eating an apple, sometimes saying something like “Thanks” when I offer him some tuna fish, is the soul.
I called him Tiger Tomsson because he was golden with white stripes. I had found him hungry and bedraggled on the street and had taken him home with me. I offered him some tuna, and he slept at my feet. Then I was ordered to take him out, and when I went to school he followed me to the bus stop outside the Single Parents’ Association building. The wind slapped us like a wet rag in the face, and I left him in the shelter of a new building next to the bus stop. Told him to wait there. When I came home three hours later, having received an adequate dose of education for that day – in my opinion, at any rate – there he stood waiting for me. From that day on I never allowed him to be banished from the house.
An unsettled feeling always welled up inside me when bus number five approached the stop near the university. The kids from my neighbourhood got out there, walked across the square, and went to the primary school. My restlessness had its root in the fact that I was never sure whether I would get out of the bus with them or stay aboard and go downtown. At first my friends participated in the suspense: “Tiger, aren’t you going to show?” A great farewell ceremony took place in the bus when it became clear that I wasn’t going to school that day, and the kids promised to say I was sick and wished me well out in the big world. Little by little things changed, though, and soon enough the kids were astonished when I did get off the bus with them: “Tiger, are you going to school?”
Miss Astrid, our teacher, had discovered that I was the root of all evil in the class, and perhaps she had something there. Actually I didn’t do much myself, but the other kids were strangely willing to act out the monstrosities that my fertile mind conjured up. One time Miss Astrid tried to outfox me by making me sit at the back of the middle row, behind the girls. She was delighted with her own cunning, for I couldn’t get away with anything from that location. I was bored to death sitting back there, and once while she sat and read aloud from a book, I slid down under my desk. Crawled between the girls’ chairs, inching my way toward the teacher’s desk. The kids sat quiet as corpses, and Miss Astrid’s reading achieved ever higher levels of dramatic fervour. When I reached the teacher’s desk, I slithered underneath the narrow slat on the front of it and peeked under her skirt. Her stout thighs were encased in black stockings, exuding heat and humidity. I glanced back at the boys who sat in the row by the window, terror tattooed on their faces. I grabbed her crotch. A most educational sensation. She hopped screaming out of her seat.
I looked pensively at her. Her face was beet-red. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. She couldn’t even manage to work herself up into the neurotic hysteria that she resorted to so often I could never take her seriously. Just asked me gently to sit down. Forced a tense laugh and tried to make a joke out of it. No one understood what had happened, least of all I myself. I’d only done it because I was bored. It was nice to see that sergeant-major transformed into a human being for a split second.
When spring came I was sent north to the country. Out in the barnyard was a large group of boys milling around aimlessly, as no one was hired to talk to them. I was to sleep in a large dormitory lined with bunk beds. There were tussles, yelps, and giggling in every corner of the room. The cacophony reminded me of a colony of birds nesting high up on a cliff. I was the youngest boy in the group and had no particular desire to go in there, so I took my bag and continued down the hall until I reached a door and opened it. Two made-up beds. Family photos and pictures of angels here and there. These people were obviously well connected in heaven. The light from outside seeped in through the black curtains and played on the old suit hanging on the wall. It seemed to recognise the place. I sat down on one of the beds.
In a little while a curly-haired farm hand in boots came in and told me that I was supposed to sleep in the dormitory, not in this bedroom. I didn’t answer him. Just looked at the pictures. He rattled off a series of names familiar and exotic. Said then that it would be best if we went over to the dorm so he could show me my bunk. I looked at the bedside table. Next to an angel walking over a bridge lay a thick, heavy tome with gilt-edged pages. I started paging through the book. The farm hand looked me over for a minute. Said then that he’d see whether I couldn’t just stay here in the bedroom for the first few days.
I lived in that room all summer. Actually, another boy came later and stayed in the other bed, but I was miffed that anyone should barge into my quarters like that, so I never even looked at him. I can’t even describe him. He was nice to me, though. Maybe he even thought we were friends.
The farm hand came and said our prayers with us in the evenings – first with the other boy, and then with me. The cook had begun to read the Bible for us during the lunch hour, and it seemed to me an exciting story, though I couldn’t understand a word she said. The farm hand read to me from some book that was supposed to be a story about a boy growing up, but to me it was one unrelieved tragedy from beginning to end. It was called Confessions and was by some guy called Augustine.
First there was a long and detailed account of how the author had been a shockingly bad boy when he was little. This description was so painful and teeming with remorse that I became pretty solidly convinced that he had killed his teacher, his parents, his siblings – probably everyone he knew. Finally he got to the point. He’d stolen an apple. The man so regretted his childhood peccadilloes that one would have thought they had alienated him from God for time and all eternity, though he never mentioned any crime other than having colluded with his friends to steal one poor miserable apple. The part he considered worst was the fact that he knew it was wrong when he did it. But he did it nevertheless. I thought this was odd, because if he didn’t know he mightn’t take the apple, then he wasn’t really stealing it. Just taking it. And for simply taking it he wouldn’t be cast out from the company of the righteous forever. There must have been something special about that apple and that apple tree. So I asked the farm hand,
“Was that apple from the same tree as the one the cook was telling us about, the one no one was allowed to eat from in Paradise?”
He thought it over for a minute. Then he said, a little hesitantly,
“Mebbe so.”
It seemed to me that I had figured out what these people were always talking about, and so I decided then and there to believe in God and say my prayers every evening.

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