How I got the better of the county council|
A tale from New Iceland by Gunnsteinn Eyjólfsson
Honourable ladies and gentlemen!
I shall start this tale by telling you who I am. My name is Jón Jónsson. I am a farmer here in New Iceland on a farm called Strympa. I will be fifty-five years old if I survive until Wednesday of the eighteenth week of summer. I am 5 feet, 7 inches tall in my Icelandic sheepskin shoes. I have no qualms about describing my deeds or bodily strength, since I, myself, am the narrator, but I will just mention that I was considered one of the hardest working men, when I was in my prime. My health has been good all my life, God be praised, apart from the fact that I have begun to suffer from rheumatism the last few years. I feel it most often in the left hip joint. The pain shoots up to my shoulder and does not improve though I rub myself with arnica and skunk oil.
I can hardly imagine that you have heard of me and that is the reason I go into so many details about myself. There are so damned many Jóns here, in New Iceland, that it makes no difference whether I or some other Jón does something remarkable, we will never become well known; because no one knows which one of us has performed a famous deed. I shall just mention, to differentiate myself from the other Jóns, that I am referred to as Jón from Strympa, or old Jón from Strympa as the lads call me. I would not be telling the truth if I were to say that I was completely unknown in the educated world, as my name has once appeared in print. It can be found in "Þjóðólfur" from 1872 in an announcement about a piebald stallion, a beautiful creature, I had lost and for which I was advertising. My full name is printed there and brand mark; the stallion was in fact not branded but I thought it grander to advertise it so just the same - Jón Jónsson, Little Strympa, November, 20. Brand mark Jón J. I cut out the advert with my name from the paper and have since used it as a bookmarker in Jón's Book of sermons. It is placed at the gospel for the 16th Sunday after Trinity. (The man with the dropsy)
Yes, - I forgot something. I actually buy the paper Lögberg and there, every week, my name is printed on a bright red label on the front page. I am fond of the labels and have removed and collected them. My Ásdís, that is my wife, has glued them on to all my books with flour paste. I keep the rest of them in my old pewter tobacco tins that I no longer use since Grímur Einarsson gave me the tobacco horn.
I already mentioned that my wife is called Ásdís. She is three years my senior, and an extremely accomplished and upright woman. She is the half-daughter of Þorsteinn, who lived for a long time at Yxnaþúfa; a very fine fellow and a farmer. I have always been wondering why "Sunnanfari" does not print a photo of him, because he owned a wonderful cow that calved twice a year and never ceased yielding milk.
My Ásdís was the oldest of the sisters. She was from Danish stock, and had an extremely good father. All the farmers in the district wanted to have a heifer from that stock. I never found out how it happened that my Ásdís and I went to North America. The chief county councillor - a very decent and upright fellow - lent us exactly 300 kronur when we left and has never asked for them since.
Ásdís and I have always got on well together, no doubt because it is easy to get on with me. If it looked like we were going to quarrel on a matter, I usually gave in, as I do not make a point of opposing her. I only remember one occasion on which she got angry with me. It happened many years ago. I had just sown corn in the patch of ground to the east of the cowshed - at that time I had not yet learnt the proper farming methods used here - and because the birds were crazy for the seeds, I put up a large clapper to scare them off. But what happened? When I came home, Ásdís was so worked up and scolded me so loudly that I had no chance to reply. She said I had put up this clapper to insult her, because Anna at Snydda had said that Ásdís from Strympa never stopped talking day or night. She was like a clapper- just like a clapper, - and if I did not take it down immediately, I would not get anything to eat for a whole week. I could not resist, food means so much to me (not that we need so much these days, mostly we subsist on our ration of coffee) I took down the clapper down and broke it to bits.
Ásdís and I have lived here in New Iceland for 20 years. The first years were fine, as there were no taxes or county council. I managed to collect four cows and several sheep. I also owned other bits and pieces, in addition to a fine bull that was used on the neighbouring farms. I had purchased its mother from Jón at Fagrihvammur. It was a splendid animal which did well on our farm. This is not surprising, as Ásdís cares for cows better than any other woman around here, except for her one flaw - she only had three udders.
So I was none the wiser until summertime, when I was informed that we were to pay the county, as at home, to support the poor, the ministers and the clerk. First I enquired whether it was possible to ask the county for support, as at home. I was told that it was not possible and that we would be badly treated if we did not pay the tax. Then, in the fall, the gentlemen sent us a tax statement. And I have to admit, I got a fright. I still had a few cents coming to me for the loan of my bull, so I collected them and used them to pay the tax. Ásdís and I did not dare disobey, as we did not know how to get round the county council then. The tax was higher the following year, and yet I paid it, after selling my blackfaced sheep. I also killed a few hens and took them to the brothers who gave me a cent in return.
I did not know why, but our livestock diminished considerably during these two years. We slaughtered Hálfa as the cow did not produce a calf. The county council made life difficult for us by passing a law banning bulls from wandering free. As a result, I had to slaughter my bull, just when it had grown beautifully fat. Anyway, I did not have hay to feed it indoors. Then thistles appeared in the pasture and we gave up sowing in it. Grímur informed Ásdís and me that nothing would grow in a thistle patch and that we should fence it off so it could grow untended. I duly followed his advice. My old nets were worn out and I could not afford new ones.
The taxes continued to rise then in the third year, and our economic situation was worse than ever. Then, on one occasion when Ásdís and I were drinking coffee, she asked me " how are you going to pay the tax this autumn, Jónsi?"
"I - I do not know", I replied. "I will slaughter the ram and take him to the brothers as part of the payment".
" And have no ram after that. No doubt you think the ewes fertilize themselves. That is in keeping with your farming methods. I think it would be better not to pay the tax, like Grímur did last year. He has apparently not been hung for it yet."
"Maybe they will take our cow and sell it towards the tax."
"Jón, you are just as stupid as when I married you. In fact, I am not afraid of those gentlemen, however angry they become. Grímur came here today looking for advice about his cow that had given birth six weeks premature. He says that the county council have allowed him to pay his tax with physical labour, as he cannot pay towards the railway line. Would not it have been better for you to dig a ditch from the well and work on the railway line to pay off the tax? At least you might be able to earn your keep that way."
"Maybe they will let me, if I ask them."
"Not if you are stupid enough to pay. If you do not pay anything, then they will let you. What else can they get from us? I also think it is better for us to have fewer animals. We will survive somehow despite that. They can not take what we do not have."
I realized that what she said was true. I never objected to what Ásdís proposed. I did not pay any tax that fall, and no one mentioned it. The following year, I was requested to pay double tax with interest. I could not have paid it, even if I had wanted to. I was toying with the idea of making a ditch from the well down to the water. So I went to the county council and asked permission to work to pay off my tax. I explained to them how difficult things were for Ásdís and me.
They gave me permission straight away as they saw that I could not pay. I dug a ditch, twenty fathoms long, two feet wide and one foot deep. It took me eight days. It was hard work, though I did not strain myself, and I decided that I would not let the county council treat me like that a second time.
The following two years I did not pay a thing for two reasons: I could not, nor did I see any purpose in doing so. No one mentioned it to me, and Ásdís insisted it was a sin to pay tax to those devils.
Then we owed three years of taxes. I think it must have been over 20 dollars. I had stopped being concerned about that debt and did not get agitated though the statements kept coming in. Then on one occasion, when Ásdís and I had just returned from our nets, Grímur Einarsson arrived. While he was waiting for the coffee to heat, he casually said:
"Have you heard, my friend?", he said "The county council is choosing an official to go around and confiscate possessions towards tax payments."
I was taking snuff at the time and was so startled that I spilt the tobacco that I had poured on to my hand. Ásdís found her tongue before me, - she is seldom at a loss for words:
"Whatever next! Are they going to take everything away from us? What nerve! If they try to force their way into the cowshed at Strympa while old Ásdís is alive and kicking…! It is all your fault, Jón. You could have slaughtered Rindla before they had a chance to take it. If you don't own anything, they can't take it away. Do you owe them any tax, Grímur?
" Well", said Grímur " I do not think so. The year before last I worked to pay for it, and last year they didn't make me pay. Yes, most probably I owe them tax for that year, but - I will never pay it."
He sounded determined and I knew he meant it. Grímur is not naive and they will find out that they cannot squeeze blood from a stone.
Several days later, while I was mending my worn out net, I happened to look out of the window. I saw the sinful tax officer himself, as the apostle Sýrak calls him, and knew his mission straight away. I looked at Ásdís and quickly added to her: "now you must take charge but try to make sure that he does not take Rindla or the sheep. Let's rather slaughter and eat them".
" You should have been man enough to have finished doing it by now" Ásdís answered and she stood in the doorway as the sinner approached. What a mouthful he got! I had always known that Ásdís could express herself but I had never imagined she could be so fluent. The words - and the choice of words - poured out with such alacrity, that the tax collector never even got the chance to interrupt her with the slightest remark. And she swung her arms about like, like, - yes, like a clapper. There is no need to say more. He went off and did not return. I was quite amused at his little visit. These gentlemen have got another thing coming if they think that they can just push my Ásdís around.
We slaughtered Rindla in the fall and sold the meat before for Christmas. We had one heifer that should have given birth in January but I could see that it was not healthy and would not have lived. I saw no point in burdening myself with two cows. We had enough trouble as it was.
I have received a tax statement each year but I take no notice of them. My tax debt is now more than 40 dollars. The other day I was rather worried because I had heard that they were going to root out all the outstanding debts in the county at a single meeting. So I went to talk to Þórður at Framnes - he came from Keita in Skagafjörður, and I said to him: "Will you go up north for me to the meeting and tell me what decision they come to about my case?"
"Yes", Þórður replied and used his sleeve to wipe his nose, " I will go willingly, my friend."
He went. They held a meeting with the collector and were dealing with all the sinful debtors in the county. When they got to my case, he said:
"Old Jón at Strympa owes 41 dollars. What is to be done?"
They looked at each other and they were speechless as if their mouths were stuffed with fish heads.
They said, "There is no point in doing anything with that fellow, Jón at Strympa, except to completely erase him from the county accounts. It is a disgrace to have such a man on the books, not to mention his wife, one of the worst hags in the area. We will be lucky if we do not have to deal with them in the future, as they can no longer support themselves."
I could not contain myself when I heard the news. To tell the truth, I had always been half afraid of the tax. But Ásdís said she was not concerned; she would never have paid it in any case.
That is how one has to behave with these county scoundrels. One must shock them completely. Finally, I would like to mention that I have not scratched down these lines with the intention of being famous, or of being considered an author. However, I felt it was my Christian duty to let my fellow men know what method of farming is most suitable here in New Iceland, so one can live well and be free from these county monsters. This is it: own nothing and do nothing.
So now I am free from the county council. I live a good life and own one worn out net that I place in the water when the weather is fine. As for cattle, I own three animals: Búbót which belongs to Ásdís, (from Þórður's black bull), my Hringur and Skakkhyrna. I have five sheep, all descendants of Jón's blackfaced ewe. We have six hens and one cock (with a double comb) and we keep them in a pen behind our bed at the back of the stove. We are content with this and have no worries because, as my Ásdís says, as long as the shopkeeper gives us credit we do not need to be concerned. If he puts an end to that, then the county council "will have to deal with us" as they said at the meeting.
To conclude, I would like to thank you, my honourable ladies and gentlemen, for listening to my account. If you intend to settle down here, you will never regret having benefited from the moral of this story.