a short story by David Arnason
The Western-Icelandic author David Arnason (b. 1940) traces his Icelandic roots to Eyjafjörđur. His great-grandmother was Petrína Soffía Arngrímsdóttir, daughter of the painter Arngrímur Gíslason, who is well-known in Svarfađardalur. Her mother, Ţórunn Hjörleifsdóttir, was the daughter of Rev. Hjörleifur Guttormsson, minister at Tjarnir and Vellir. Petrína Soffía died at Gimli on March 20, just shy of her twentieth birthday, nine days after giving birth to her daughter, Petrína Soffía Baldvinsdóttir, who was David's grandmother. David's ancestors also include Jóhann Pétur Árnason and his wife, Dóróthea Abrahamsdóttir from Syđri-Villingadalur in Saurbćjarhreppur. David is a well-known author in Canada. His works include a novel, short stories, poems, plays, and documentaries about Western Icelanders. His Icelandic origin is a palpable source of inspiration and often plays an unusual role in his works. David says that his skill as a raconteur sprouts from the stories of the Icelandic storytellers at Lake Winnipeg, to whom he heard in his childhood.
Dawn was just spreading its red glow across Lake Winnipeg when Gusti Oddson reached for the buoy to pull in the first of his seven nets. And what was he thinking, that second cousin once removed of my great-grandmother, on a June morning in 1878? Perhaps he was thinking of the smallpox epidemic that had recently taken his wife and three children, or perhaps he was thinking about nets and why they sometimes caught fish and sometimes didn't. He wasn't thinking about talking fish, or at least the scattered diaries he left behind give no indication that he was thinking about talking fish, and why, after all, should he have been? That's why he was startled when the sunfish he had just pulled into his boat, the first sunfish of the day, spoke to him.
"Gusti," the sunfish said, its silver scales bright in the first rays of the rising sun, "listen to me. I have much to tell you."
Gusti did not answer right away. He was a man of common sense, and he knew that fish do not speak. Still, in the past three years, his faith in common sense had been somewhat shaken.
Common sense worked perfectly well in Iceland, but it seemed to be of less value in this new country. Common sense had told him that when water is covered with ice, you do not bother to fish. Here though, you fished underneath the ice, and when you pulled fish up through the ice, they gasped and froze solid in the winter air. Common sense told you that land which could grow trees fifty feet high could also grow potatoes, but that was apparently not necessarily so.
He had come to the Republic of New Iceland three years ago. The first year, he had nearly starved. The second year, his family had died in the smallpox epidemic. The third year, religious argument had split New Iceland into two warring camps. Seri Bjarni argued that the struggle between God and the devil was being fought out for the final time on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Seri Jon argued that there was no devil, that Jesus was not the Son of God, but only a religious leader, and that God was a spirit that was in everything in the world, but was not a person.
So, when the sunfish spoke to him, Gusti asked it, "Are you of the devil's party?"
"Don't talk nonsense," replied the sunfish, "there is no devil, or God either, for that matter."
Gusti pondered for a moment, then asked, "Are you then a Unitarian?"
"I am a sunfish," said the sunfish, "and I'm not here to give you any selfish wishes. Greed and lust," he went on sadly, "that's all you find nowadays."
"Then you are one of the Huldafolk," Gusti said, "or maybe a Mori raised by enemies to bring me bad luck."
"More nonsense," the fish replied. "Ignorant superstition. How could your luck be any worse than it is? Everybody you love is dead. You haven't got a penny to your name. You hardly catch enough fish to eat, much less to sell. Everybody in New Iceland calls you Gusti Foulfart because you live on dried beans and never wash your clothes. No woman will look at you."
"There is no need," Gusti told the fish, "to be rude. Things have not gone well for me in the last while, it is true, but that is not to say that they will not soon improve."
"Progress," sneered the fish, if indeed his opening and closing his mouth could be counted a sneer, "delusion, a snare and a trap, the vast enslaving device of the Western world. Only peasants and fishermen and fools believe in progress. Things never get better, they only get different."
"How is it that you speak Icelandic?" Gusti asked the fish, who seemed to be having some trouble with his breathing.
"A better question might be, `How is it that you come to speak Sunfish?" the fish replied, flopping around on the bottom of the skiff, as if to get a better view of Gusti. "Or indeed it might be more to the point to ask, `What is the nature of language?"'
"There are plenty of preachers on land," Gusti told the fish. "Already the sun is well above the horizon, and I have seven nets to lift. In New Iceland they have taken to calling me Gusti Madman because my wife sometimes comes to me in dreams and I cry out for her. I have no time to argue religion with a fish."
"Wait," cried the fish, with what might have been real fear, "I am speaking to you. Is this not remarkable? Do you not want to know what I have come to tell you?"
"I believe the evidence of my senses," when my senses give me evidence I can trust. I know that fish do not speak. Perhaps there is a voice-thrower on the shore, or perhaps I am still in my bed dreaming of fish. The least likely thing is that I am actually in my skiff talking with a fish. So, I am going to hit you on the head with my oar, and I will take you in and boil you and eat you with potatoes and butter. You are not a large fish, but you will do."
"Wait," the fish almost shouted, alarmed that Gusti had picked up an oar and seemed to mean business. Gusti had let go of the line and they were drifting away from the net toward the southeast. "I'll give you a wish. Not three wishes, but just one, and try to be reasonable."
Gusti put the oar down. "I'll have my wife back."
The fish groaned, or made a sound that was close to a groan. "I asked you to be reasonable. Your wife has been dead two years. How could you explain her return? Bringing people back from the dead destroys the natural order of things. Besides, you fought like cats and dogs when she was alive. Let me give you a new boat instead."
Gusti reached for the oar again.
"No, wait," the fish continued. "I can give you Valdi Thorson'sˇwife, Vigdis Thorarinsdottir, instead. She's the most beautiful woman in New Iceland and you know you've lusted for her for years, even when your wife was alive."
Gusti pondered for a moment then replied, "No. She is a fine woman, but a man shall cleave to his wife. It is either my wife that you give me, or I eat you for supper this very night."
"OK," the fish grumbled, "but it's not the way you think. She won't be there waiting for you when you get back. She'll arrive in two weeks as a young woman, the cousin of your wife. Her name will be Freya Gudmundsdottir and she'll claim kin and come to live with you. But you'll have to woo her. And you'll have to shape up or else she'll marry Ketil Hallgrimsson, and then you'll have neither wife nor supper."
"Good," said Gusti, "that's fair. Now what have you come to tell me?"
The fish appeared to be sulking. "It's ridiculous," he complained. "I appear at great personal risk to offer mankind wisdom, and I get petty arguments, greed and lust. It's always the same. And I don't suppose you'll pay any attention to what I tell you anyway. Do you think I like to breathe air? Do you think it's comfortable here on the bottom of this boat? I don't know why I do it."
The sunfish fell silent. Gusti felt a little sorry for it and he asked gently, "What is it I should know? I will listen carefully, and if things work out as you say and my wife returns, I will try to carry out your instructions."
The fish seemed a little mollified at this. "OK," he said, "listen carefully. "
Gusti leaned forward, attentive. "It's over," the fish told him. "Done. Finished. Kaput. They're closing down the whole show. Moving on to bigger and better things. Cutting their losses."
"What do you mean?" Gusti asked the fish, who by now was slowly opening and closing his mouth.
"All of it. Everything. Sun, moon, stars, trees, birds, animals, men, dogs, cats, the whole shooting works."
"You are telling me then," said Gusti, "that the world is going to end."
"You got it," said the fish, "go to the head of the class." He flopped once and continued, "And not a moment too soon. Nothing but greed, lust, dishonesty and pride. And self righteousness. If it weren't for self-righteousness, they might give it another go. If you knew how often I've flopped around the bottom of boats trying to explain things, talking to selfish louts with no more in their minds than their own little comforts, it'd make you sick. "
"And when is this to happen?" Gusti asked.
"I don't know. Maybe tomorrow, maybe a couple of millennia. They're busy, they've got things to do. Anyway, I've done my part. I've delivered the message. Now if you must heave me over the side, I'll be on my way."
Gusti ignored the fish. "This," he said, "is no great news. Everyone knows that the world will end some day. What matters is to live a proper life while you are here. "
"Makes no difference," said the fish. "Proper or improper. What one man does is of no concern. If the whole world changed then maybe they'd reconsider. But it's far too late now for that. Go ahead, rob, murder, steal, it isn't going to make any difference. And if you don't get me in the water soon, you're going to have my death on your conscience as well."
The fish's eyes had started to cloud over. "Just one last question," Gusti went on. "What day will my wife arrive?"
"You see," said the fish, as if addressing someone not in the
boat but in the blue sky overhead, "you see what I have to put up with. I bring the most important message in the history of the universe and I have to answer foolish questions. Friday. Or Wednesday, or maybe Saturday. A week or a month. I've given you your wish. I'm not in charge of travel arrangements."
The fish had ceased to gasp, and lay in the bottom of the boat like a dead fish. Gusti picked it up gently, and slipped it into the water. The fish lay on its side, drifting slowly away from the boat. Gusti watched it for a long time, until finally, with a flick of its tail, it disappeared under the shining surface of the lake.
The next morning Gusti did not go out to his nets. Instead, he hauled water from the lake and heated it over an open fire. He took every article out of his shack and washed it. Then he washed the entire shack, inside and out, including the roof. He rechinked every crack he could find with clay, and then he whitewashed the shack inside and out. The entire community came out to watch him with wonder. The children began by singing the song they always sang when he came near, "Gusti Foulfart, Gusti Foulfart smells like rotten meat. Stinky beans and stinky fish is all that he will eat." Their parents hushed them and threatened to send them home unless they stopped.
Vigdis Thorarinsdottir was the only one brave enough to speak to him. She knew she was the most beautiful woman in New Iceland and she had seen Gusti look at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Gusti," she asked, "what happened? Are you expecting someone?
"There has been a change," he replied. "The world will end soon and so a man cannot mourn forever. I will fish no longer. From now on I will be Gusti Carpenter. If you will make two
blankets of the finest wool, I will repair the leaking roof on your shack which your husband will not repair because he prefers to sit on the dock repairing nets and telling stories. And, Alda Baldvinsdottir," he went on, "you have a cow. If you will give me a jug of milk each day for a year, I will put another room on your shack so that the twins will not have to sleep in the same bed with you and your husband, and you will not have to worry that he will roll over and smother them."
In this way, Gusti conducted business with the entire community. Halli Valgardson exchanged a year's supply of firewood for a new boat. Inga Gislasdottir agreed to make him a new suit in exchange for a brick chimney. The fishermen agreed to provide him with all the fish he could eat if he kept the dock in good repair. When the sun went down that day, Gusti was the richest man in New Iceland, and everyone had forgotten to call him Gusti Foulfart or even Gusti Madman.
One month later, twenty new settlers arrived on Hannes Kristjanson's boat. They told frightening stories of the trip, how their ship had nearly foundered on the rocks on the coast of Scotland, and how a marvellous silver fish had appeared and led the boat to safety; how, coming up the St. Lawrence, they would surely have crashed into another ship had not a marvellous silver fish come to the captain in a dream and warned him in time. Just that morning, coming down the Red River, they had run aground in the delta, but a school of silver fishes had bumped into the boat until it floated free.
Among the passengers was Freya Gudmundsdottir. She was eighteen years old, with blonde hair that hung down to her waist and eyes so blue that from that day on, no one in New Iceland called anything blue without explaining that it was not as blue as Freya's eyes. She looked like Gusti's wife had looked when she was young, but Gusti's wife had only looked pretty, and Freya was beautiful.
Ketil Hallgrimson was the first to meet her when she got off the boat. He asked her to marry him then and there, and he vowed to devote his life to making her happy. Ketil was a handsome young man, only twenty-three years old, with hair that hung in curls and muscles that rippled when he moved. The smile with which Freya answered him made Gusti's blood freeze. Still, she said she had not come to marry the first man she met, and she asked for Gusti. She told him she was the orphaned cousin of his wife, and asked it she might live with him until she could support herself. Gusti's tongue was so tied in knots that he could barely stammer yes.
She gave him her trunk to carry and followed him down the street to his newly whitewashed shack. The first thing she said when she got into the shack was, "I can see there hasn't been a woman's hand around here for a while. " Then .she scrubbed the table that Gusti had scrubbed until the top was thin. She sniffed the blankets that Vigdis Thorarinsdottir had just made and which had never been used. She screwed up her nose and hung them out on a tree to air. Then she swept the cleanest floor in New Iceland, threw out the fish that had been caught that morning, saying they had gone bad, and she started to make bread. Gusti sighed and thought, "Yes, this is my wife all right. The fish has delivered his part of the bargain."
And that was pretty much the way things went until the following spring. Gusti found himself occupying a smaller and smaller part of the house. He left early in the morning to do the jobs he had promised the others, and he came back late at night to find the house getting cleaner and cleaner. Freya made him new clothes. She cut his hair and clipped his fingernails and toenails. He had almost no time to write in his diary, but what he wrote pretty well describes his life. "Thursday, January 11. More snow, the weather very cold. Freya is cleaning again. Worked all day repairing Helgi's roof. I may no more chew tobacco." Any entry reads like any other.
Then that spring, Freya was chosen to be protector of the god in the wagon. Gusti should have expected it. Each year the prettiest young woman in the community was chosen, and Freya was certainly the prettiest of the young women.
Things changed very quickly. One morning Gusti awoke to find that his breakfast had not been made and Freya was not in her bed. He thought, because it was spring, that she might have gone for a walk, but she was not on the beach, nor was she in the garden behind the house. He walked to the dock and asked the fishermen if she had gone by. They laughed and said it would be some time before he saw her. He asked the children on the road, but they only laughed and ran away. Finally, he knocked on the door of Vigdis Thorarinsdottir, and she told him not to be a fool. "When the god in the wagon comes you will see her," Vigdis said, "now go away and act like a man."
Gusti knew then that he was in trouble. The protector of the god must marry that spring, and Gusti had not begun his wooing. Though they had shared the house for eight months, they were no closer than the day she had arrived. Gusti had been silenced by her wonderful beauty and even more silenced by her terrible temper. Still, he had changed for her. He was clean, obedient, sober and hard-working, an ideal husband. Ketil Hallgrimsson, on the other hand, had given up all work, and did nothing but sulk on the dock and wait till Freya came by, when he would leap to his feet and do tricks of strength until she had passed.
It was time, Gusti thought, to consult the fish. He walked all the way out to the south point and around to the channel, where the water was deep and he knew that fish liked to sun themselves. He stopped near a large white rock and shouted to the gentle waves that lapped at the shore. "Sunfish, come out of the water, I have to talk to you." The only reply was the splash of a tern diving for minnows. He shouted again but still there was nothing but the quarrelling of gulls. He was about to leave, when he decided, "No, I have walked all this way, I will try once more. Sunfish," he cried, "come out." With a splash, the sunfish landed at his feet.
"If you would read something besides the newspaper," the sunfish said, "you would know that you have to call three times. Now what's wrong? Is the wife I brought you not good enough?"
"Oh, she's fine," Gusti replied, "even more beautiful than I remembered, though her temper is strong."
"You just forget," the fish said. "She is exactly as she was. You were just younger and didn't pay as much attention to her."
"Well," said Gusti, "she has now been chosen as protector of the god in the wagon, and so must marry this spring. What shall I do?"
"I am not so sure she will marry me. "
"Well, that's your problem, isn't it?" said the sunfish. "I've fulfilled my part of the bargain. Face it, you're getting on, you're not a young man anymore. And besides, you've become incredibly dull. You've given up tobacco, you don't drink, you work hard all the time, you've even shaved off your beard. What woman would give you a second glance?"
"There is no need to be insulting," said Gusti. "I have only asked you politely for advice."
"I'm busy," said the fish. "The world is coming to an end. I've got things to do. I have no time to give advice to the lovelorn." With a flick of his tail, he flipped himself back into the lake. Then his head appeared, silver in the sunlight, and he added, "Give her a philtre," and disappeared.
"What kind of philtre?" Gusti shouted at the waves, but the sunfish was gone and the waves didn't answer.
For the rest of the week, Gusti stayed in his house, watching the dishes go dirty, the dust begin to gather on the table and the floor. He stopped shaving and began to chew tobacco, spitting the juice into a basin on the floor. Freya did not appear. She was gone wherever the women had taken her to prepare, and he knew there was no reason to expect her. Once, Ketil Hallgrimsson came over and they shared a bottle, but neither had anything to say. In the community, women were frantically baking, and the men were decorating the doors with willow boughs. The first green leaves were starting to sprout on the poplars and maples, and already in some yards, the poppies were starting to bloom, white and yellow and red.
On Friday at dawn, she arrived. The whole community, men, women and children, had gathered in the street to await her. She came down the road from the south, dressed in a flowing white robe, her long golden hair ruffling in a slight breeze, her blue eyes flashing. Gusti though he had never seen anything so beautiful. She was leading Helgi Gudmundson's white ox. The ox had a garland of flowers around its neck and was pulling the wagon with the god. The god was the largest Gusti had ever seen. He towered above the wagon and swayed with every step of the ox. His heavy hands, palms upturned for rain, rested on the front of the wagon. His shirt was a brilliant patchwork of colour and his great painted face beamed at the whole community. The wagon was filled with flowers, and there were flowers and branches with green leaves sticking out of every crevice in the enormous body. Gusti noticed that one of the legs was draped in the blanket that Vigdis Thorarinsdottir had made for him. "Where," he wondered, "where do the women find so many flowers, so early in the season?"
The ox stopped right at the foot of the dock, and Freya climbed into the wagon and seated herself in the lap of the god. She began the oration, and all the community sat down on the ground to listen. Gusti was so entranced by her beauty and her frailty, there in the lap of the god, that he hardly heard what she said. She spoke of rain. She spoke of sunlight and crops. She spoke of trees bursting out of the earth, of animals in the fields, of nets dripping with fish. She spoke of love and of little children. Her voice mingled with the voices of birds and the lapping of waves. And then she was gone.
Then the woman brought out the steaming vats of coffee and plates full of pönnukökur. They brought out turkeys glazed with honey and chokecherries, chickens and pigeons and ducks. They brought out roasts of venison and roasts of beef, plates of boiled sunfish and fried pickerel and broiled whitefish. They brought out hangikjot and rullupylsa, lifrapylsa and slátur. They carried out bowls of skyr and ram's heads pickled in buttermilk. They brought out vinarterta and kleinur and àstarbolur.
The men pulled corks out of bottles and threw away the corks. They said, "It is never too early for good whiskey," and they aimed the bottoms of the bottles at the sun. The children were into everything, laughing and crying and squealing, but no one paid any attention to them. Husbands and wives who had hardly spoken for months kissed like young lovers, so it is no surprise that no one noticed that Gusti had slipped away and returned to his house.
Freya was there. She had changed from her white robe into an old blue housedress. She was staring out the window and hardly noticed the mess in the house. "You were wonderful," Gusti began. "Never has there been such a beautiful protector nor so clever an oration. "
Freya glanced at him, then looked out the window once more. "I shall marry," she said. "In nine days, I shall marry."
"And who shall you marry?" Gusti asked, his heart wrenching inside him.
"There are many I might marry," Freya responded, though without enthusiasm. "In the meanwhile, it is not seemly that I should live longer with you. I will go to stay with Vigdis Thorarinsdottir until my wedding day." Then she packed her trunk, and Gusti carried it down the road to Vigdis's house.
The next day was quiet as the community rested from the celebration, but by Monday the town was buzzing with rumours. Who had Freya chosen? Would it be Ketil Hallgrimsson, or one of the other young men of the community? Or had she perhaps betrothed herself to an outsider who would arrive on the wedding day? There was even a rumour that the priest was angry because they had received the god in the wagon, and that he would refuse to perform the wedding ceremony. Ketil Hallgrimsson was dressed in his best clothes, and stood in the road before Vigdis Thorarinsdottir's house, doing feats of strength.
That week, Gusti had plenty of time to write in his diary. He pondered over what he might put in the philtre to gain Freya's love, and he wondered who might help him. He considered whether it was right to use a philtre at all. Could love that was gained by a trick be real? In the end, he decided that the philtre should contain pure water. What else, he thought, is so close to love? It may be taken cold or hot, it is clear and insubstantial, it refreshes, but when it is consumed it is gone. And most important, there is more of it in the world than anything else.
Here you must bear with me, because the diaries end, and so I have had to reconstruct what actually happened. My aunt Thora, whose mother was there, says that Gusti went to Vigdis Thorarinsdottir and told her of his trouble. She led him to a clearing in the bush where she comforted him in her own way and promised to slip the contents of the philtre into Freya's coffee on the morning of the wedding day. That morning, Freya chose Gusti and they were married and had thirteen children. Ketil Hallgrimsson was so sad that he drowned himself in the lake the same day.
My aunt Lara, Thora's sister, agrees with the story, but claims that Vigdis drank the water herself. That morning, Freya chose Ketil Hallgrimsson and he did not drown for twenty years. By that time, he had fathered all the children whose descendants now live in Arborg. Vigdis left her husband and went to live with Gusti and they had thirteen children, though they never married. All their descendants now live in Riverton.
The people from Arnes tell a story very much like the story of Gusti, but in their version, a marvellous stranger dressed all in silver appeared on a magnificent boat and claimed Freya for his bride. They moved to Wynyard and had thirteen children and all the Icelanders in Saskatchewan are descended from them.
My cousin Villi, who is only six years older than me, but who speaks better Icelandic, says that the family is trying to hide something. He has overheard whispers, and he believes that Freya chose both Gusti and Ketil, that the three of them raised thirteen children and no one ever knew who was the father. He says the whole thing about the fish is just made up so people will think it is only a fairy tale and not enquire any further. After all, our uncle is the mayor, and any scandal might go bad for him in the next election.
I have my own ideas. If I were making up this story, I would tell you that, yes, Gusti did go to see Vigdis and tell her his troubles, and yes, she did comfort him in her own way, telling him of the secret love she had always felt for him and begging him to forget Freya. If it were my story, I could tell you that Gusti was not a flexible man, that he had made the faithful Vigdis pour the water into Freya's coffee, that she had chosen Gusti and they had married. Then, because I would want a happy ending, I would show you how Freya's bad temper and wicked tongue drove Gusti away, so that he married the faithful Vigdis, while Freya chose the hapless Ketil, who, for all his feats of strength, could never get the better of her. I would say they each had thirteen children, and all the people of Gimli are descended from them.
But I would go even further, because a story needs a proper ending, and I would do something about the fish. I would let Gusti catch him once more in a net and when the fish began all that nonsense about the end of the world, I would have Gusti take him home to Vigdis, who would boil him and feed him to the thirteen children. So there you are.