From Iceland — Uchronia


Published November 3, 2006

Once Upon a Time…? And what happened then?
What came first, the fairies or the fairy tales? Who knows, but those who grow up with the tales live in fairy tales for the rest of their lives. Invariably sad, the tales are about longing but their sadness is just one thread in the colourful tales – not sadness that should be cured.
The fairies lived in a big rock, close to the farm, which must have been in the South East of Iceland where the tales come from. They were tall and looked like you and me, though more beautiful than any human can ever hope to be. They always seem far away even when standing close by, perhaps because they dress in blue – the colour of distance – and never follow trodden roads.
They lived a life of plenty and brought luck to the farm. When the farmer’s wife had been fetched to assist at a difficult fairy-childbirth or the farmer had saved a fairy child from drowning they were rewarded with precious gifts, a silver belt or a silk scarf. Kind words were honoured with a bowl of fresh milk or a piece of salted mutton. Some of those who had seen the rock open said it emitted enticing light, permeated with music, others that the enticing music was permeated with light.
The tiny rooms at the farm were filled with dim light and fumes from cod oil lamps. The only music came from the squeaky organ in the tiny church, accompanying the hoarse voices of the churchgoers. With plenty of everything, even sugar, raisins and coffee, yes even rock candy, the fairy life would be much sweeter than on the farm. On the farm each day was firmly tied to the seasons a repetition of the past. Fairy tales belong to Uchronia, beyond time, where hope of better things lives – better in an unimaginable way because there have never been such times. Those who were lured by the luminous harmonies were never seen again: the sweet life of light, music and hope would be lived in an eternal separation from the human world and the loved ones there.
But if provoked, fairies were vengeful and cruel. The people on the farm knew they were always watched and the children were taught not to climb the rock or play anywhere near it. But on the day when spring jumped from the calendar into the gentle breeze, the adults might ignore the playing children, even join them – until someone looked back and saw the farm on fire. Shouts of joy turned into cries of fear and despair, but when they reached the farm there was no fire. Fearful, they fixed their eyes to the ground – surely, the sinking sun reflecting in the tiny windows had not fooled them.
After a cold summer or when a child had been born the grass on the rock looked buttery. For days they would comment on it, until the farmer himself, without uttering a word, would take his scythe and slowly cut the grass around and on the rock. The farm-girl who had a crush on him and was hated by his wife followed him with her rake. At supper no one said a word – words brought deeds to life and silence undid them. But as morning broke and the wife got up to milk, she found the best cow stone dead.
These were the tales my aunt told me. They were in me, and my language long before I imagined I could live elsewhere and in other languages than Icelandic. I had seen the rock, close to the vicarage where my grandfather served. Now, no one lived there but the tales were as true as the farm was real.
I knew the names on every tombstone in the tiny churchyard – it was like visiting distant relatives: faceless when out of sight but familiar when present. Reading the names I would calculate, with some difficulty, how long they had lived. Their age was always the same though mine increased between my visits. The female names with the shortest lives, some shorter than my own, made me shudder.
The low green mountain above the farm was flat at the top like the other mountains in sight. Even a little girl could walk all the way up – I could. The clouds, too lazy to hang in the sky, languished on the horizon until the mountains swallowed them to reveal the sky, blue as fairy clothes.
My father had told me that rocks, like icebergs, only show their tips, extending much further down than I could imagine. The rock was the size of a turf cottage surrounded by the meadow that fed the few cows on the farm and each day in the life of a cow gave tepid milk that kept someone alive. I only drank cold milk from our American fridge.
The rock was as tangible as the tales. Though they contained death, fire and the threat of disaster, I wanted to hear them again and again: there was always the chance that this time everything would be all right. It never was and yet I longed for them because they came with my aunt’s embrace, her smile and warm scent of stale eau de cologne.
I would ask her to sing the song about the rock. It started with ‘My grandmother told me…’ – I understood that my great grandmother, then only a child, had seen the rock open at sunset on a Sunday, when the fairies celebrated mass. She ran away and later told my aunt never to go near the rock at that time.
Whenever I heard the song I was relieved she ran away; otherwise, my aunt would then have been a fairy with no tales to tell – you cannot tell tales of yourself. My mother, my aunt’s youngest sister, would have been a fairy as well and never have met my father, who grew up in a different part of the country, where reportedly there were no fairies – at least not in tales I heard. And I would not have been born and more than I can imagine had never happened.
Yet, the fairy world did reach me. My aunt told me that her grandmother loved music above all else and had claimed that whenever she heard music she would hear the sound of the fairy music. When my aunt moved from the farm to Reykjavík, she learned to play the piano. She played for me and her music was unlike any music I have ever heard full of light and melody, but also of profound longing, which – as I later understood – kept her alive; longing she instilled in me. She lived in her tiny flat in Reykjavík with a piano and my other aunt, and only had what she owned. I left, found music, light and the hope of unknown things. Yet, like everyone who lives in fairy tales I never escaped the inherent sadness of my aunt’s tales – but that is nothing to be sad about.
‘I’m an accident waiting to happen. But don’t worry, I won’t be caught on camera – of course I’m behind the camera!’ Quite out of character, perhaps because asleep he was completely serious as he explained this to Lisa, sitting on the bed in their Lower East Side studio. In his dream she was as awake as was he and no doubt happy to hear what he was saying also how he said it: she always complained that he was never serious about anything, least of all serious about his love for her.
But how could he be serious about love? Awake or asleep: love is lightweight, pure oxygen; and just like oxygen, completely essential – especially physical love. Lisa, however, was hooked on talking about love. He kept trying to teach her that life is about seeing and sensing, love being the proof – or so he thought at the time.
As with oxygen there is not much to say about love: it either is – and then there is nothing more to say – or it is not and then you cannot talk it into your life anymore than you can talk yourself to oxygen if you are out of breath. Love is like that, beyond words; if it can be caught in words it is not love. Love is tactile, olfactory, visual, visceral and not substantial enough to be photographed. It does not make sense in music because it does not make any sense at all – if it makes sense it is not love.
No, he neither had the words for all this nor for his love of Lisa. He was only madly in love with her: the fun-loving yet responsible, clever, bossy and beautiful Lisa. And since the three words – ‘I’ ‘love’ ‘you’ – turned her on he used them frequently; there and then he was equally sure he seriously loved her and that love was never serious.
He was waking up just as he preferred: drifting from sleep through lucid dreams into conscious thoughts. Or as conscious as is possible for someone who is more of a doer than a thinker.
His unlived life this particular sunny April morning started with a sense of wetness: his back and chest were sweaty a warm stickiness in his crotch. He liked the elusive moment of wet dreams when the sensation was there but he was still unaware of it being only a dream. This time there was also a slight sense of guilt – a distant face, not Lisa’s, had been in his mind that moment – a tickling feeling of being unfaithful. Though not actively so, he would keep quiet about it – to Lisa.
The dilemma of unconscious unfaithfulness would be the right topic to discuss with ever-clever Tony, nine years his senior, eloquent since the day he was born, brought up on the way from museums to concert halls, visiting relatives all over the world, as stereotypically cosmopolitan as he himself was provincial. They were both late-starters; Tony had gone into journalism after a failed career in his family’s investment company.
As he opened his eyes, the lens drew him into his New York reality: the bed where Lisa slept next to him. He reached for the camera, the last thing he had looked at before falling asleep – ever since he first held a camera, as a boy, it had given him an existential right and wiped out his shyness. Like an actor before a performance he was always nervous before shooting portraits. Especially today, it was his first commission for a book. Shooting the widow, who had to be an expert on both photos and photographers.
‘JÓN’ – the black plastic strip with his name in white letters sat next to the lens, the dot over the O painted. When he took the cap off the lens dimly reflected his square face: his sharp cheekbones and high forehead hovered over the big, deeply set eyes, tightly framed by the dark limp hair – he brushed it behind his ears with both hands; a nervously comforting habit. He was reasonably tall though two cm shorter than Lisa, who was unusually tall, even for a Danish girl. Her portfolio stated: height 181 cm, bust 85 cm, waist 62 cm, hips 89 cm.
His bony body under the duvet was a variation of his square face. In spite of his 33 years it still held on to the all-legs-and-arms teenage proportions. Not even Lisa could make well-cut clothes sit properly on him. His usually unshaven face and careless way of dressing gave him a barbaric look. She said he looked as if he came from some savage place. She was right: in comparison to New York he did come from barbarian lands – she seemed to resent it but he found it comforting: it saved him from merging with the masses of the megacity.
He looked up at the window above the bed: closing his eyes he visualised the morning light on street outside. During the first months in New York he was enchanted by the city – until the images from the countryside, where he spent the summers of his childhood, re-emerged: the low summer sun intensified the colour-scale of the Icelandic wilderness, lava-black, glacier-white, sea-grey and foggy bluish distance until the winter darkness wiped them out. The land fanning out from the tiny capital was made of long shadows, or, for most of the year, of darkness and no shadows, of few words but many tales he had mostly forgotten; the tales grew out of a landscape too barren for anything else.
Photos had brought him to New York. After dropping out of college several times in Iceland, working in a fish factory, on a trawler and at a building site as he partied away his earnings, he was no longer failing aimlessly and not caring about it. New York was turning him into someone who, frame by frame, was building a life out of just the things he lived for almost like in one of his granny’s fairy tales.
His new life was connected to the old one by a five-hour flight and telecommunications and yet disconnected from it all. Life in New York was easy for an Icelander: either, people had no idea where Iceland was or knew the nature was fantastic and the islanders barbaric enough to eat whales. He had learned the word ‘patronymic’ to explain that Icelandic surnames are not family names. It had only taken him a few months to loose his ability to sleep in – the city was so intensely demanding that he needed only four to six hours sleep as everyone else he knew there.
Six years of New York life had deepened his understanding of who he was but coming from a landscape of strikingly few words he had no passwords to access his accumulating knowledge. Beside words, good manners were also missing in his original landscape; Lisa resented that he forgot to hold doors for her or wipe the raindrops off her chair in an outdoor café. But why should he? In this crowded place there were always plenty of others to do it – especially for a gorgeous girl like Lisa.
One night just after they had met, they were walking home from a party. Furious, Lisa claimed he had ignored her the whole evening. As usual, he kept quiet: other people’s anger is like a storm – nothing to do but wait it out. His silence fuelled her anger. Less drunk than he was, she talked loudly, gesticulating with her umbrella, when she suddenly hit him on his thigh with it. He hardly felt it, but her silly behaviour annoyed him; he had only been thinking about some photos he had messed up. Irritated, he wrenched the umbrella out of her hand, broke it over his knee, threw the pieces over a fence and walked on. She gasped.
Lately, she said he was getting better at talking. No wonder: in New York, everyone he knew regarded silence as an embarrassment.
Lisa was lying on her stomach. The light from the windows accentuated her striking features. Her fine nose under the long, thin almost straight brows in her oval face, her closed almond eyes and the faint smile on her thin lips displayed her photogenic qualities that the camera could use to create whatever illusion needed.
Taking photos of her was a kick: she did not just pose in front of the camera to be pretty but moved and had fun. Things were going well for her. She had come to New York only two years earlier, already twenty years old, without contacts or brilliant photos in her portfolio. Strong-willed, she had been able to make the best of what she had. He admired her abilities though her scrutiny could be taxing – he himself had the tendency to drift around hoping things would turn out well. So far, they generally had.
He was not arrogant, but knew what he wanted and hated to be told what to do; he had never considered anything but being freelance. When friends and family asked how his career was going he was still not sure if this series of happy accidents merited the word ‘career’, but his professional life seemed to be moving on.
The book commission was a major break – he had hardly believed his own eyes when he saw the first e-mail from Tony on his screen – but he knew that no single commission secured him. It was all about catching attention, creating substantial work and getting published every month. The stress kept him intense and excited. He knew he had been lucky – his friendship with Tony was pure luck though Tony’s version was: ‘the harder you try the luckier you get.’
He sat up in bed and reached for a folder with photos: the same familiar and friendly face on all the photos, taken over about a quarter of a century.
The chair-series was the first he had seen of her – at an American photo-exhibition at the Art Museum in Reykjavík. Thirteen years old and already a walking encyclopaedia of all things photo-technical he was convinced that technical specifications made photos good. Later he learned that photos are good in spite of the camera, not because of it; he still found it difficult to comprehend that photography is about exposing what others do not see, so he focused on what he himself saw.
The chair-photos were the only ones he remembered from the exhibition, which he visited every day it lasted: he had heard about the exhibition by coincidence – art had been beyond his horizon at the time. When the staff noticed it a journalist came to interview him and one of his own photos was printed with the interview: a photo of Skeidarár-sand. His granny had been very proud of the interview. Others in his family found his obsession ridiculous or even embarrassing though no one mentioned it; no one said much about anything.
His relatives were all farmers apart from his father who had been forced to move to Reykjavík because of hay fever. His parents would have liked him to study law or engineering, like his three older brothers: at his age, his brothers had all been doing well, living with their children and childhood girlfriends-turned-wives in big houses in attractive parts of Reykjavík.
The first photo exhibition he saw in New York was a Roberto Nettuno retrospective. Women had been Nettuno’s favourite subject especially his wife. The chair-series and other photos of her filled the main hall. That was where he met her again, in the photos – long before he would discover that life is laced with incidents, which at first appear coincidental.
Looking at the chair-series he spread out on the duvet was like meeting an old friend. Tony had told him that they were Nettuno’s first photos of her, taken before they got married. Her dark dress, stretched over her knees, had short sleeves and a boat-shaped neckline. Its soft material blurred her outlines against the white stiff fabric draped over the easy chair she sat in broken by the weight of her body. The series was called ‘Edda’. Tony said she was Icelandic but had been living abroad since her youth; it had amused Nettuno, himself Italian, that Edda was also an Italian name.
The seven pictures were frontal, taken from the same spot. On the first she leaned towards the camera with a straight back, crossing her arms over her crossed knees, her fine hands tapering down. Her long legs, close together, leaned to the right. On the next ones, she had her legs over the arms of the chair, her toes pointed like a ballerina. On the last one she sat as on the first, her legs to the left.
Years ago when he had tried all the technical tricks he could think of to emulate this airiness he had finally concluded that there was no trick. The inherent heaviness of Nettuno’s deep focus and diffused light, accentuated by the monochrome dark background, contrasted her shiny and clear face but the lightness emanated from the radiant girl. He also saw this now, when he scrutinised the clippings.
The pointed chin exaggerated the oval shape of her small girlish face. She had high cheekbones, a fine nose and a somewhat pouting mouth. Her thick blond hair was held back in a high ponytail, a few escaped curls framed her face. The round cheeks gave the impression of a chubby girl but she was in fact slim. Judging from the chair she was probably not tall but her long limbs and long neck were well proportioned – a miniature of a model.
She was tangible, at ease and frank, like children are in photos – as if she belonged to no time but her own. With her eyes on the camera, she had the teasing candour of a girl who is showing off, while giving nothing away. Though serene the vibrant tension in her slender body created an intriguing ambiguity – the perfect model.
Jón replaced the photos in the folder and observed Lisa through the camera: her long sleek hair lay like a white chiffon veil on the dark blue pillow. He pushed the button several times, she did not move. She might not like the pictures, but they would surprise her; usually, she woke up first.
It was a series of Lisa, called ‘A Girlfriend’, which had won him the commission: a portrait to accompany an introduction by Nettuno’s widow in the book Tony was writing on Nettuno. She had seen his series at the graduation show the previous year and asked Tony to contact him. Now that Tony was about to finish the book the day of the shoot had come – the day but not the hour.
The above is an excerpt from Sigrún Davíðsdóttir’s upcoming novel Uchronia.

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