Authors: Jon Kalman Stefansson
Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Fiction
HEAVEN AND HELL
HEAVEN AND HELL
JÓN KALMAN STEFÁNSSON
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton
An imprint of Quercus
New York • London
© 2007 by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translation © 2010 by Philip Roughton
Originally published in Iceland as
Himnaríkí og helvíti
by Bjartur in 2008
First published in the United States by Quercus in 2014
Jacket illustration: “Northern Landscape,” by Penny Hamblin
Published by agreement with Leonhardt & Høier Literary Agency A/S, Copenhagen
This book has been published with the financial support of Bókmenntasjóður/The Icelandic Literature Fund
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
HEAVEN AND HELL
The mountains tower above life and death and these houses huddling together on the Spit. We live at the bottom of a bowl, the day passes, turns to evening, it is filled with the serenity of darkness and then the stars kindle. They glitter eternally above us as if they have an urgent message, but what message and from whom? What do they want from us, or, perhaps more importantly, what do we want from them?
There is little left of us resembling light. We stand much closer to darkness, are nearly darkness, all that we have left are memories and the hope that has nevertheless faded, continues to fade and soon resembles an extinguished star, a dark chunk of stone. Yet we know a little about life and a little about death, and can tell of it: We come all this way to touch you, and to set fate in motion.
We intend to tell of those who lived in our days, more than a hundred years ago, and are little more to you than names on leaning crosses and cracked headstones. Life and memories that were effaced according to the merciless ordinances of time. This we intend to change. Our words are a kind of rescue team on a relentless mission to save past events and extinguished lives from the black hole of oblivion, and that is no easy task; along the way they are welcome to find some answers, then get us out of here before it is too late. Let this suffice for now, we’ll send the words on to you, those bewildered, scattered rescue teams unsure of their task, all compasses broken, maps torn or out of date, yet you should welcome them. Then we shall see what happens.
This was during the years when we were surely still alive.
The month of March and the world white with snow, although not purely white, here it is never purely white, no matter how much snow falls, even though sky and sea freeze together and the cold penetrates deep into the heart where dreams have their home, the color white never wins. The cliff-belts on the mountains rip it off as soon as it falls and jut out, black as coal, into the white world. They jut out black over the boy and Bárður as they walk away from the Village, our origin and end, the center of the world. The center of the world is laughable and proud. They walk easily, young legs, fire that burns, but they are also racing against the darkness, which is perhaps fitting since human life is a constant race against the darkness of the world, the treachery, the cruelty, the cowardice, a race that often seems so hopeless, yet we still run and, as we do, hope lives on. Bárður and the boy, however, intend only to overtake the darkness or twilight of the air, beat it to the huts, the fishing huts, walk sometimes side by side, which is by far the best because tracks that lie side by side are a sign of solidarity, then life is not quite so lonely. The path, however, is often not more than a single track that winds like a frozen snake in the snow and then the boy has to look at the backs of Bárður’s shoes, at the skin bag he carries on his back, at the black tangled hair, and the head that sits securely on the broad shoulders. Sometimes they walk across stony beaches, tread risky paths on cliff faces, it is worst on the Impassable, a cable fastened to the rock face, a sheer mountainside above, a sheer stone wall below and the surging green sea, a thirty-meter fall, the mountainside rises nearly six hundred meters into the air and the peak is covered in clouds. The sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other; therein lies our whole story. The authorities, merchants, might rule our destitute days, but the mountains and the sea rule life, they are our fate, or that’s the way we think sometimes, and that’s the way you certainly would feel if you had awakened and slept for decades beneath the same mountains, if your chest had risen and fallen with the breath of the sea on our cockleshells. There is hardly anything as beautiful as the sea on good days, or clear nights, when it dreams and the gleam of the moon is its dream. But the sea is not a bit beautiful, and we hate it more than anything else when the waves rise dozens of meters above the boat, when the sea breaks over it, and, no matter how much we wave our hands, invoke God and Jesus, it drowns us like wretched whelps. Then all are equal. Rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and the sad. There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it’s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come nibble the lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes, most often tolerates us, but sometimes not and then we drown; the history of humankind is not terribly complicated.
I’m sure we’ll row tonight, said Bárður.
They have just crossed over the Impassable, the cable did not break, the mountain did not kill them by pelting them with rocks. They both look out over the sea and up into the sky, whence the darkness comes, its blue no longer completely blue, a hint of evening in the air, the beach opposite has become harder to see, as if it has retreated, sinking into the distance; this beach is almost perfectly white from foreshore to dune, reflecting its wintry name.
It’s about time, the boy answers, a bit winded after the hike. Two hours since they set out. They finished their coffee and cakes in the German Bakery, made three stops and then plodded out of the Village, a two-hour trudge through deep snow. Their feet are wet, of course they are wet, we were always wet those years, death will dry them, the old folk said when someone complained; sometimes the old folk know less than nothing. The boy adjusts his bag, heavy from what we cannot do without, Bárður adjusts nothing, he just stands and watches, whistles a bit of a blurred melody, appears not to be tired at all, dammit, says the boy, I’m panting like an old dog but it’s as if you haven’t taken a single step today. Bárður looks at him with those brown, austral eyes of his and grins. Some of us have brown eyes, fishermen come here from distant places and have done so for hundreds of years because the sea is a treasure chest. They come from France, Spain, many of them with brown eyes, and some leave the color of their eyes behind with a woman, sail away, return home, or drown.
Yes, it’s about time, Bárður agrees. It’s been half a month since their last fishing voyage. First a storm raged from the southeast, it rained, the ground became spotted and dark where it emerged from the snow, then the wind changed and came from the north, lashing its snowstorm whip for days on end. Storm, rain, and snow for fourteen days, not a boat on the sea and the fish safe from humans for the time being, down in the deep stillness of the sea, where storms cannot reach; men seen there are drowned. One can say various things about drowned men but at least they don’t catch fish, they actually don’t catch anything except the gleam of the moon on the surface. Two weeks and sometimes one couldn’t move from one hut to another because of the weather, the howling storm wiped out the entire landscape in all directions, the sky, the horizon, even time itself, long since finished fixing what needed to be fixed, tied on the cod hooks, untangled the line, untangled all snarls except those related to the heart and the sex drive. A man or two struggled along the beaches, searching for mussels for bait, some used the time to make things, mended the waterproofs, but days spent tied to the shore can be long, they can stretch into endlessness. It’s easiest to endure the wait with card games, play and play and never stand up except to attend to bodily functions, trudge out into the storm and relieve oneself among rocks on the beach, some, however, so lazy, or perhaps not so beautiful inside, don’t bother going down to the beach and instead shit right up near the huts, then say to the Superintendent as they’re coming back in, a project for you, pal! The boy is the hut’s super and thus has to clean up around it, he is the youngest, the weakest, could beat no one in a wrestling match, and he was assigned the Superintendent’s post, that’s how life frequently is, those who aren’t strong enough have to clean up others’ shit. Two long weeks and when the weather finally settled it looked quite as if the world had returned, look, there’s the sky, so it’s true, it exists, and the horizon is a fact! Yesterday the storm’s fury had slackened so much that they could clear rocks from the landing, clambered down there, twelve in number from both huts, two crews, toiled away moving huge stones tossed by the sea onto the landing, mere pebbles beneath which they lost their footing, scratched and bloodied themselves, six hours of labor on the slippery foreshore. This morning a wind blew from the west, rather weakly, but when it blows from the west the breakers frequently make voyages impossible, it’s a crying shame, almost vilifying, to see this foaming obstruction and the sea beyond it more or less calm enough for sailing. One’s temper is soothed, however, by knowing that cod shy away in the western wind, simply vanish, and besides, it provides an excellent opportunity to make a trip into town. Men left the main huts in groups, the beaches teeming and the mountainsides crawling with fishermen.
Bárður and the boy sometimes catch a glimpse of the group ahead of them and modify their pace in such a way that they draw farther apart rather than closer together, the two of them travel by themselves, it’s best that way, so much that needs to be said intended for just the two of them, about poetry, about dreams, and the things that cause us sleepless nights.
They have just crossed over the Impassable. From here it is approximately a half hour’s walk home to the hut, for the most part along the stony beach where the sea snaps at them. They stand high up on the slope, put off the descent, look out over more than ten kilometers of cold blue sea that tosses and turns as if impatient at the head of the fjord, and at the white beach opposite. The snow never fully leaves it, no summer manages to melt the snow completely, and still folk live wherever there is even a trace of a bay. Wherever the sea is fairly accessible there stands a farm, and at midsummer the little home-field surrounding it turns green, pale green areas of tussocky ground stretch up the mountainside and yellow dandelions kindle in the grass, but even further away, to the northeast, they see more mountains rise into the gray winter sky: these are the Strands, where the world ends. Bárður removes his bag, takes out a bottle of
, they both take a gulp. Bárður sighs, looks off to the left, looks at the ocean itself, deep and dark, he doesn’t think at all about the end of the world and the eternal cold, but instead about long, dark hair, how it blew in her face in early January and how the most precious hand in the world brushed it aside, her name is Sigríður, and Bárður trembles a bit inside when he speaks the name to himself. The boy follows his friend’s glance and sighs as well. He wants to accomplish something in life, learn languages, see the world, read a thousand books, he wants to discover the core, whatever that might be, he wants to discover whether there is any core, but sometimes it’s hard to think and read when one is stiff and sore after a difficult fishing voyage, wet and cold after twelve hours’ working in the meadows, when his thoughts can be so heavy that he can hardly lift them, then it’s a long way to the core.
The west wind blows and the sky slowly darkens above their heads
Dammit, the boy blurts out, because he is standing there alone with his thoughts, Bárður has set off down the slope, the wind is blowing, the sea churns, and Bárður is thinking about dark hair, about warm laughter, about big eyes bluer than the sky on a clear June night. They have come down to the beach. They clamber over large rocks, the afternoon continues to darken and press in on them, they keep going and hurry the final minutes, and are a hair’s breadth ahead of the twilight to the huts.
These are two pairs of new-ish huts with lofts located just above the landing, two sixereens overturned on the beach and lashed down. A large, rough crag extends into the sea just beyond the huts, making landings there easier but overshadowing the main fishing huts, which are a half hour’s walk away, thirty to forty huts and more than half of them fairly new like theirs, with sleeping lofts, but a number of them from a former time and one-storied, the crews sleep and bait the lines and eat in the same space. Thirty to forty buildings, perhaps fifty, we don’t remember exactly, so much is forgotten, confused: we have also learned little by little to trust the feeling, not the memory.
Dammit, nothing but ads, mutters Bárður. They have entered the hut, gone up to the loft, sit on the bed, there are four beds for the six men and the Custodian, the woman who takes care of the cooking, the wood-burning stove, the cleaning. Bárður and the boy sleep head-to-toe, I sleep with your toes, the boy says sometimes, all he has to do is turn his head and his friend’s woolen socks are in his face. Bárður has big feet, he has pulled his feet up beneath him and murmurs, nothing but ads, meaning the newspaper published in the Village, which comes weekly, is four pages long, the last page frequently covered with advertisements. Bárður lays the paper aside and they finish removing from their bags everything that makes life worth living if we exclude, in their case, red lips, dreams, and soft hair. It’s not possible to put red lips and dreams into a bag and carry them into a fishing hut, you can’t even buy such things, yet there are five shops in the Village and the selection is dizzying when things are at their best at midsummer. Perhaps it will never be possible to buy what matters most, no, of course not, that is unfortunately not the case, or, to put it better, thank God. They have finished emptying their bags and the contents lie on the bed. Three newspapers, two of them published in Reykjavík, coffee, rock candy, rye bread, sweet rolls from the German Bakery, two books from the library of the blind old sea captain—
Niels Juel, Denmark’s Greatest Naval Hero
in the translation of Jón Þorláksson—in addition to two books they had bought jointly at the Pharmacy from Dr. Sigurður,
Travelogue of Eiríkur from Brúnum
and Jón Ólafsson’s textbook of the English language. Sigurður has a pharmacy and bookshop in the same house, the books smelling so much of medicine that we are cured and freed from ailments simply by catching a whiff of them, tell me it’s not healthy to read books. What do you want with this, asks the Custodian, Andrea, picks up the textbook and starts leafing through it. So we can say, I love you and I desire you in English, Bárður replies. That makes sense, she says, and sits down with the book. The boy came with three bottles of cure-all, Chinese Vital Elixir, one for himself, one for Andrea, the third for Árni, who hadn’t arrived yet, same as Einar and Gvendur, they had planned to spend the day visiting various huts, rambling, as it’s called. Pétur the skipper, on the other hand, spent the entire day in the hut, cleaning his waterproofs and rubbing them with fresh skate liver, mending his sea shoes, went out once to the salting house with Andrea, they spread a sail over the ever-growing saltfish stack, it has grown so high that Pétur doesn’t need to bend over at all while they’re at it. They’ve been married for twenty years and now his waterproofs hang down below, hang among the fishing gear, a strong odor comes off them now but they will become soft and malleable when they set out tonight. A tidy man, that Pétur, like his brother, Guðmundur, skipper of the other boat, about ten meters between their huts but the brothers don’t speak to each other, haven’t done so in a good decade, no one seems to know why.
Andrea puts down the book and starts heating coffee on the stove. There had been absolutely no coffee that morning, which is truly ominous, and in a short time the aroma of coffee fills the loft, it slips down and overwhelms the odors of fishing gear and unwashed waterproofs. The trapdoor lifts and Pétur comes up with his black hair, his black beard, and his slightly slanting eyes, his face like tanned hide, comes like the Devil from down in Hell up here into the Heaven of coffee, with an almost cheerful expression, it’s no small thing what coffee can accomplish. Pétur smiled for the first time when he was eight years old, Bárður once said, and the second time when he first saw Andrea; we’re waiting for the third time, concluded the boy. The trapdoor lifted again, the Evil One is seldom alone, muttered the boy, and the space appeared to shrink after Gvendur came all the way up, so broad shouldered that no woman could embrace him properly. Einar follows at his heels, half as large, thin but astoundingly strong, incomprehensible whence this slender body derives its power, perhaps from savageness, because his black eyes even shoot sparks in his sleep. So there you are, says Andrea, and pours coffee into their mugs. Yessir, says Pétur, and spent the whole day blathering their brains out. They don’t need an entire day to do that, says the boy, and the mugs in Andrea’s hands shake a bit as she suppresses a laugh. Einar clenches his fists and shakes them at the boy, hisses something so unclear that barely half of it can be understood, he is missing several teeth, his dark beard imposing, grown halfway over his mouth, his ragged, thin hair nearly gray, but then they drink their coffee. Each sits on his own bed and the sky darkens outside. Andrea turns up the light in the lamp, windows at both gables, one frames a mountain, the other the sky and sea, they frame our existence, and for a long time nothing is heard but the surge of the sea and the contented slurping of coffee. Gvendur and Einar sit together and share one of the newspapers, Andrea scrutinizes the English textbook, trying to enlarge her life with a new language, Pétur just stares at nothing, the boy and Bárður both have their own papers, now only Árni is missing. He had gone home the day before yesterday after they had finished clearing the landing, struck out through the downpour from the north, through frost and snow, couldn’t see a thing but still managed to find the way, a six-hour walk home, he’s so young that the woman pulls him in, Andrea had said, yes, follows his goddamn dick, said Einar, seemingly furious all of a sudden. I know that you neither believe it nor can imagine it, she then said, speaking to Einar yet glancing partly at her husband, but there are men who are a bit more than muscles and longing for fish and women’s crotches.