By GYRÐIR ELÍASSON.
Excerpted from Copper Field (Koparakur), Dimma, 2014
Translated from Icelandic by Mark Ioli
I HAD GONE to bed where I’d been reading when the phone rang. I didn’t much feel like getting up to answer it, so let it ring out. I found the book I was reading quite enjoyable, Rockwell Kent’s account of his travels in Tierra del Fuego, the text illustrated with his own brush and ink drawings. I read well into the night, the clock showed nearly two when I turned off the lamp. A yellow glow came in through the curtains from outside. It had snowed that evening, a thin layer over everything, the barren shrubs like filigree. It was the first snowfall of winter.
I lay there a moment with my eyes open, head on the pillow, staring into the darkness at the curtains. Then I let my eyelids sink and tried to relax. Sleep would not come, however. Countless images popped into my head from the previous day, which had been a particularly difficult one, along with other moments in my life, most of which has also been difficult. I was especially adept at recalling anything that was embarrassing or inclined to make me feel worthless. I tried to think about Rockwell Kent and his travels through the hills of Tierra del Fuego, but soon lost track of him there in the mountains and began thinking about other things. Without warning, an immense, dark face popped into my head. I have no idea where it came from, out of which corner of my subconscious it arose, but it terrified me somehow. It was a clear, sharp face with strong, sinister features and piercing eyes, like a mask from some Japanese theater production. I tried to shake it from my mind but couldn’t. The face remained, as though carved into a wall somewhere inside me. It stared at me accusingly, and I could feel the rage seething from it. I recalled something I had read in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, about how much effort it took to be evil, but this face didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.
I began to feel uneasy, as I could see nothing else before me but this face. With great mental effort I managed to finally push it away, and for a moment all returned to emptiness and desolation. I thought I might be able to fall asleep now, despite the fact I was nearly trembling after this apparition. I opened my eyes for just a moment, intending to take a quick glance at the clock glowing in the darkness, when I saw that the face was not gone at all. It was on the white curtains, stretched across them like a close-up of some villain on a movie screen, casting an icy look my way. It was partially illuminated by the yellow light from outside, so that the eyes took on a demonic glow that had a truly ill effect on me. I didn’t dare close my eyes, as I was afraid I would see the face from the inside, but neither could I shift my eyes from it. I considered turning on the light, but it was as though my arms had been disconnected, so I just continued lying there in the dark, looking up at the face. I waited for it to say something, but it never did. The mouth moved slightly due to the draft coming in through the window opening, but remained contorted into the same devilish smirk that seemed to bear with it all the evil in the world.
Slowly I closed my eyes, hoping the face wouldn’t notice. Hoping it wouldn’t once more crawl in beneath my eyelids, burrow deep in my mind, and stare at me from inside.
RAIN FELL ONTO the skylight above the desk where he sat. While the drops arranged themselves into a kind of prelude that wasn’t perhaps as catchy as the one written by the Polish composer, he found it pleasant to listen to. He was attempting to write, though without much success. He looked around him, at all the books on the shelves: no one else seemed to have any problem putting words in the right order.
“Maybe it’s the world that’s trying to stop me,” he thought. “It’s not like it needs any more books. But why doesn’t it stop the others as well?”
He stood up, went downstairs to make some tea, added honey and stirred it while he made his way upstairs again. When he sat back down at his desk he saw that two words had appeared in the open document on his laptop. That document had been empty when he went downstairs, and he was alone in the house.
“No more,” now stood there, in a font he never used. He put on his glasses and pondered these words as he sipped his tea. He could make nothing of them.
The phone rang.
“Hi. Were you awake?”
“Of course I was awake.”
“Are you writing?”
“Yes, hard at it.”
“So you could use a break.”
“It’s raining so much.”
“Do you not want to talk to me right now?”
“I don’t know.”
The voice on the other end didn’t pause for even a moment despite the response.
“Arnfinnur and I are splitting up.”
“Sorry to hear.” His tone was one of complete disinterest.
“He’s moving to the United States.”
“He plans to start by going to Oregano.”
“Oregon, you mean.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“And he doesn’t want to take you with him?”
“I don’t want to go.”
“What is he going to do there?”
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Maybe become a lumberjack?” he said. The connection dropped suddenly, his phone completely dead. He looked at the battery indicator and saw it was empty. He set the phone down on the desk and went back to staring at the two words on the screen. Nothing more had been added to it.
He looked up at the skylight and watched how the raindrops formed streaks and patterns on the glass, like an old kaleidoscope. The gray light shining in through the window pane onto the white floor reminded him of a soft pencil being drawn across an empty page. He tried to guess at the meaning behind the symbols the drops were forming, but could make nothing of them. Same went for the words that appeared before him.
His tea had gotten cold.
Gyrðir Elíasson was born in Reykjavík in 1961 and is one of Iceland’s most well-regarded contemporary authors of poetry, short stories, and prose, as well as being a prolific translator in his own right. His short story collection Gula húsið (The Yellow House) won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2000, while Milli trjánna (Among the Trees) won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2011.
Mark Ioli is a literary translator who called Reykjavík home for over four years. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he studied Russian, Polish, and Spanish before becoming fascinated by Icelandic, and in 2017 moved to Iceland to continue learning the language and rich literary history of this remote island. His translations have appeared in Asymptote, Iceland Review, and Another Chicago Magazine.