Armann Jakobsson

 

 

 

(Iceland)

 

 

I TERRIFY THEM

 

 

∞ 1 ∞

 

 

I terrify them.

My eyes shut, I hear them approach with ill-concealed caution. I open them, glare at them and issue what I think is a bawl. According to the people here at Finngeirsstaðir, I have a fearsome cry, more like a shriek from the netherworld than anything else. How should I know? Having no knowledge of cattle tongues, even though I appear to be of this kin. But I have learnt this with time: to give voice so it strikes fear into the hearts of the people of Finngeirsstaðir.

It’s only right to warn them now and again, let them know that I’ve come here to kill. My days in the barn would be duller still without this game, and the pleasure it brings to watch them digest the truth while still refusing to believe what stares them in the face. It’s a game with practically no end: warning people, then watching them squirm in indecision.

Their impotence is my pastime in the dark days of deepest winter. Cows are poor companions for the oldest and wisest being in Álftafjörður.

Dungaður the cowherd has noticed this:

Glæsir is always off by himself, he has said. Pays no heed to the other cattle in the shed. It’s almost like he’s not the same species.

A cowherd’s sense can be unsettling sometimes. I am so truly a different species.

 

Cows are boring beasts. I suspect their entire day is spent digesting. The cowherd says they have four stomachs. Which came as a surprise to me. I’d never helped out in slaughtering with the household at Hvammur while I was alive. My second wife, however, was a good hand at that. She was good at a lot of things, although I had trouble putting up with her after our first year of marriage. Took my revenge in the end though.

It would probably have made it a bit less monotonous to understand what these cattle say. Not that these Daisies say much. Spend most of the day chewing and farting, probably thanks to all of these stomachs. A whole life that revolves around nothing but passing gas. And these are supposed to be holy animals.

I have never wasted a thought on cattle, who are said to be bad-tempered, sometimes stupid, sometimes stubborn. I never notice any of this. They are lazy and irate if you disturb their laziness. Other than that I know nothing about cattle. You’ll have to look somewhere else for knowledge of cattle. Even though I’ve been a calf now these four winters.

Of course, a cattlebeast I’m not. Nor a man either. I’m not even myself.

Ask me rather who I was.

None of this is understandable any longer. Don’t think for a moment that man’s comprehension of his own existence sharpens after death. If anything it grows duller. All I know is who I was, and hardly that even. Just as good to have the long winter nights in the cowshed to try and recall that.

I do know one thing, though. I know why I am here. I’m here to kill.

That I know.

People sometimes speak of powerful ghosts. Little do they know. The walking dead have no power – except to wipe out and destroy. They can steal the lives of others but they cannot give life, neither to themselves nor others. Ghosts cannot create.

That seems hard for people to understand. Many people think that only a few are creative. But all people make things. Make children, make food, make all sorts of crafts. Even the most useless of them work at something. Some tell tales, others recite verses. Some put strange pictures on walls.

Even confined to her bed day and night, that ancient hag, farmer Þóroddur’s old nurse, is an endless source of amusement and things to talk about for the rest of the household.

Only a ghost can create nothing, except fear in others.

 

I terrify them, but not one of them has the courage to admit it, either to himself or the others. Cowardly people are usually keen to conceal their fear. The more craven they are, the less they let it show. But I know the smell, knew the smell well enough even while I was among the living. Someone who has spread terror for many long years know no smell better. It’s even stronger to the departed, though. Fills my nostrils every time anyone in the household at Finngeirsstaðir comes near.

Except for him.

I smell no fear from him. Could it be his fear has no scent? How does he manage that? Fear is something you can’t control, no matter how you try. Its scent is always there. I should know. Could he be a simpleton without the sense to be afraid?

I’ve been watching and wondering about Þóroddur Þorbrandsson every day for almost four years. Cautiously, very cautiously. Because he’s the one who gave me this new life, he and Dungaður, the cowherd. Just as good not to threaten him to the point where he has no other choice.

It’s risky to take men’s options from them. People who have no choices act unexpectedly. The others, who have choices, you can play with this way and that way, because figuring them out is hardly a problem.

Human behaviour comes as no surprise to me. I’ve been around here for over a century, first over eighty years alive and then more years than I can count when I was dead, and yet not. Before beginning my new life as the calf Glæsir.

If I had to pass judgement on it here and now, I’d say that Þóroddur has no fear of me. I see none in his eyes when he comes to look me over. Only watchfulness. Fear I should be able to identify, after all my experience in instilling it.

He pays a visit to the cowshed every single day. Do Icelandic farmers generally? I never put in an appearance in the cowshed in Hvammur. Didn’t have the least interest in cows. I’ve been made to pay for that. Wonder if my current situation is a continuation of the gods’ curse? Would be just like them, the fiends. Makes me laugh to think that Icelanders have now tossed them to the falls or hid them away in caves. Parted ways with those heathen monstrosities that have made so many generations their playthings, right from the days of the great Ýmir. Not that the white Christ will serve them much better. Could he maybe be Óðinn, in a new disguise with yet another name?

All gods are fickle. They’re like men in that respect. Not to be trusted. Nothing to be trusted except the emptiness that awaits us all in the end.

And yet. Even that has failed me. Failed to turn up when the time came.

 

No, fear me he doesn’t. I think he loves me instead. There’s no scent of fear about him, but I’m not so well acquainted with the scent of love. These females I was married to never loved me, much less the children they claimed I’d fathered. My son never loved me, I know that better than I’d like to. Suppose I was loved by my mother, but I recall that emotion only dimly.

The recollection is dull, practically vanished. Bit by bit memories wither away, like everything else. That’s something else I’ve learned from my lengthy stay on this earth that most people refuse to look in the face: the destruction is complete.

The dead do not live on in the minds of those who survive them. They don’t live at all, just disappear. Now they’re all dead that I knew as a child. Every single one of them.

I cannot recognise at all what shines from those eyes of farmer Þóroddur of Finngeirsstaðir when he looks at me. All I know is that it’s neither dread nor fear, rather something akin to longing.

Do know one thing though: he’s the good spirit of the farm Finngeirsstaðir. I have him to thank for my life. Not only has he given me these hours which have passed since I arrived here, saving my life in so doing, but it’s also thanks to him that some of those hours have not been as evil and dark as all the others. He’s also saved my life there.

His eyes are loving. Even when serious he still smiles. I like it best when he laughs, though. His laughter gushes out of him like the death rattle of a mortally wounded man – but Þóroddur laughs because he’s alive. There’s no such laughter in death. That I should know. He pokes fun like a youngster. The only upstanding farmer around here with humour. Farmers here are a glum lot. They run the show and gloom comes with power. He’s the only one who seems unbowed by power. Probably had no need of him in this large litter of brothers. There were six of them all together, Þórbrandur’s sons. I probably need to think awhile to remember all their names.

He and Dungaður often come together to take a look at us animals. I don’t think the cowherd fears me either. My theory is that he thinks I’m one of the herd. Dungaður probably knows cattle well enough to know that he’ll never know them. There can never be any understanding between men and cattle.

They’re old enough to enjoy simple pleasures, such as paying a visit to the cowshed once or twice a day to discuss the news and weather over the heads of the cattle. Probably think they’re alone. Think no one hears their talk.

But I hear.

They have plenty of opinions and plenty to hold on to. But sooner or later it all slips through their fingers and down they plunge, down. Into the emptiness.

 

It’s hard to say. Now and again they send me a glance as if they know who I am. But there’s no way they can know that. Humans lack the imagination to conceive of a long-departed neighbour acquiring new life in the guise of a calf. And even though they guessed at such they would immediately reject their own imaginings. Nothing in the teachings of the white Christ could explain such a wonder. Not as far as I know. My knowledge of the king of the heavens and his teachings I’ll admit is limited. I failed to ask him for news of the king of Jerusalem before striking off his head, that one monk I slaughtered.

It was a clean stroke though, probably one of my best kills.

Can’t even think of it without bellowing loudly, with the joy of victory.

Even that monstrous shrieking fails to budge them. Are they so fearless, the two of them?

Þóroddur never looks down. To judge by what the farm people say he can’t look down without a sharp pain in his neck. I heard that it’s been that way since the battle in Vigrafjörður. I was dead then, walking dead, had been put to rest and had not yet risen up after. In that struggle Þóroddur was wounded so badly on the neck that he couldn’t hold up his head. As the wound healed, his head hung forward and he demanded that it be set again. After that he can’t look downwards without pain. Compelled to look forward, whatever awaits him there. All the same he smiles, unheeding. The farmer of Finngeirsstaðir has wrestled with pain and come out on top.

I know how he feels. Have more experience than others of being locked into a body which plagues me.

I should be amused that Þóroddur and I ended up in the same boat. Him with his neck and me with my foot. But whatever the reason, it’s no solace to me.

When he comes near I sniff him, and lick his clothes. And he pats me. Knows what pleases cattle. And strange as it is, even though this body is not and never will be mine, I can still feel how skilfully he strokes, although the pleasure I feel is likely only a shadow of what a real calf would.

And then we look into each other’s eyes. His are dark as the night. Who knows what natives’ blood runs in the veins of these sons of Þorbrandur of Álftafjörður?

Glæsir has turned into a calf to be proud of, he says with Dungaður. Without looking at him. No, he’s looking me in the eye. Or rather the eye of the bull whose existence I share. As if he understands everything. But how could he?

We were lucky not to have put him down when he was born, he adds.

Your old nurse wouldn’t agree with that, Dungaður says.

The cowherd is short in stature and broad, dark-haired. Sprightly as a youth in his movements. I don’t remember him being at Finngeirsstaðir when I farmed at Hvammur, but in those days I paid no attention to cowherds. Could hardly foresee that they’d play a key role in my life.

Old nurse is losing her grip, although she’s been right more than once in her predictions, says Þóroddur. I’ve nothing to fear from this fine animal.

Would’ve been a shame to slaughter him, Dungaður says. He’s as big as an ox twice his age. Fills out with each passing day.

Women know nothing about farming, Þóroddur says. Their minds are still full of spirits of the past, of superstitions that we’ve now put behind us, choosing instead the one true God, the white Christ. I just follow the counsel of Snorri, my fosterbrother, who usually says: If we fear not the spirits of the past, we wipe them out, because superstition feeds on fear.

Snorri goði is the wisest of men, Dungaður says.

I’ve never met anyone shrewder, says Þóroddur. Would have done better to follow his advice years ago, when they re-set my head.

Your head is your head, Dungaður says.

Snorri should have overruled me, says Þóroddur. Would have spared me pain in plenty. He foresees it all. He foresaw the victory of the white Christ and the new faith, first man to do so in the region here. And few people convinced more men to follow the son of Mary than him, because Snorri has a way of usually being on the winning side. Which everyone knows, and that’s why men readily follow him.

You’re right there, Dungaður says. You and your brothers have got on well with his support.

That we have. We stood over the dead body of Arnkell goði himself, the greatest champion who every grew up here on Snæfellsnes, says Þóroddur.

Says this without boasting, though. Maybe he feels my true eyes penetrating through him behind the dull eyes of the bull. Unexpectedly the conversation has come to concern me more than a little.

People think it’s no less to your credit, Dungaður says, that you put an end to the haunting of his old man that summer. That was more than Arnkell himself could manage. Bægifótur was not quiet in his grave for long once his son was gone from this earth.

I was never frightened of that ogre, says Þóroddur. I believe in the white Christ and fear no evil spirits. They belong to the past.

Both of them have their backs turned to me. Don’t know what they’re talking about. My guardian spirits, who together determined to spare me from slaughter, though the old crone demanded it. I can’t examine their faces, see only the backs of their heads, which sends me no clear message of their hearts and minds. But I can well believe Þóroddur speaks the truth. He likely believes in the victory by the white Christ over the spirits of the past.

I don’t.

 

 

∞ 2 ∞

 

 

My main enemy on this farm I have never set eyes upon. Close to death’s door, his old nurse never enters the cowshed, never sees the cattle. But she hears this bull’s roar.

When I was born anew, I’d no idea at first what had happened. I thought for a moment I’d been reincarnated in a man’s body. It wasn’t deliberately that I had myself put into this cow. All I knew when they burned me was that I was not about to leave mutely and without protest. I’d find myself a new refuge. Nothing but ashes, in my haste I thought I was in the womb, not in the belly of a cow. It was no small disappointment. What can a calf accomplish? Man rules this realm and cattle hardly have the same chance to make their mark.

Of course I shrieked to the high heavens when I realised this dapple grey bull the people of Finngeirsstaðir were all wondering about, doubtful as to what and what not to do, was no other than myself. I gave a look backward, saw this broad and unshapely trunk and realised I was once more locked into an armoured, weighty carcass, and the roar just came of itself. Not the slightest suspicion did I have that I could give forth a sound like that.

Everyone started. The farmer’s wife was pale as chalk. Only Þóroddur showed no sign of having heard the monstrous bellow. I knew right then that here was an opponent who would not easily be subdued, and vowed to stand over his corpse. Even if I were only a simple bull.

But I didn’t expect that gradually he’d become the man I think the most of, of all those I’ve come across. I was quick enough to set myself a task in this new body, but gradually doubt would sneak in and do its best to dampen my resolve.

Dungaður patted me on the side, saying:

This is a fine animal.

I snorted then, of icy scorn, but they failed to understand that. They don’t understand the cruel humour of those cunning witches who created this fate for me: to spend an entire human lifetime as a cripple. A reject. So I limped through eighty years of life to become in the end a prime specimen of bull. A wreck of a man turned into a handsome bull.

All of us will likely turn into monsters if we live long enough. Die badly enough.

Dungaður is one of a kind. I don’t know how long he’s been Þóroddur’s cowherd but there’s little he doesn’t know about cattle. Which is more than I can say – and of course I’m not a bull, although you might think that to look at me. I’m the only animal in the cowshed who’s a mystery to him. Although I can sense that he feels now and again that he’s made some contact.

Of course there’s a link between us. That we’re two of a kind, even though he doesn’t know it.

 

I never saw the old nurse when they took me into the house, just newborn. Probably saw all the others in the household, although I don’t remember clearly, my attention was unsteady, I was still unused to thinking in a cow’s body. But she wasn’t there. Her bed is her world and the ceiling over it heaven to her. She can’t go out, can’t go to the cowshed, can’t go anywhere. Who knows how her days pass? But I know she has her wits about her. She’s the only one who understands who I am.

Of course the household at Finngeirsstaðir have talked about the old crone’s prophecies day in and day out. Never cease talking about it in front of me, certain that I understand nothing of it. Sometimes they’d quote the old crone directly:

That’s the racket of an ogre, she’d said, not of any other beast, do what’s right and slaughter this ill-boding monster.

Now that’s a word for you, ill-boding. I’ve been called many things in my life and death, but never that.

The next time she heard me bellow, she repeated this:

Þóroddur, lad. Have the calf slaughtered, because we’ll suffer for it if he’s raised.

Then Þóroddur played a trick on her. Of course, he wanted to avoid arguing with his old nurse, blind and over ninety. But all the same he disregarded her foresight and treated her prophesy like any old wives’ tale. It’s easy enough to pay no heed to old women’s mutterings. Never did I listen to women when I was at my best. Now I know better.

This old nurse said I was a monster. Hardly a nice thing to say, but the truth all the same. I can’t deny that. A horrible monster I am, the worst ever to be born in this country. A monster of such power that if Þóroddur knew of it in his cowshed, he would not go to sleep in peace a single night.

But Þóroddur sleeps well. I’ve heard that from his household. He sleeps the sleep of the just. No one troubles his dreams. Not even that miserable Arnkell, though he killed him ages ago.

Þóroddur’s conscience does not seem to trouble him over that slaying. Would he be startled to know that the prize animal in his cowshed is no other than that monster, Arnkell’s father? The father who determined to slay his son’s killer even though he’d spared his life as a newborn calf.

Arnkell did deserve what he got, though, for his double-dealing and arse-kissing. He was a weakling, who dishonoured his aged father. I’ll not soon forget his disloyalty.

Instead of slaughtering the monster calf, Þóroddur had the heifer who shared my second womb with me slaughtered. Then he forbade his household to tell the old nurse that the calf was still alive.

It was not until the following spring that I was let outside, after a whole trying winter amongst these stupid Finngeirsstaðir cows. Stood me in good stead, the patience I’d learned through a long life among misfits in Iceland, and still more during my solitary stay in the wastelands after death.

The monster is always alone. No one can understand my utter isolation, biding my time, one of a kind among brainless cows. But I waited calmly.

Waiting’s something I have learned.

All that long winter I could only think of one goal: to destroy the existence of the people of Finngeirsstaðir. But that would only be possible if I waited for the right moment.

Finally when I came outdoors again, I welcomed the freedom. Of course I bellowed as loudly as a bull can bellow. And naturally the old crone heard it.

Laying there on her pallet as usual, she raised up on one elbow to say:

So that was it, the monster was not killed. We’ll suffer more from this than we’ll live to relate. The people at Finngeirsstaðir repeated these words of hers time and again in the cowshed that following winter. They pretend not to be frightened at all. That the old crone’s warnings are only a monstrous joke to them. But they’re frightened all the same. They are so frightened that I can feel it, as I stand there, calm and quiet in my stall and all they hear from me is the heavy breathing of the bull. They never dare look me in the eye. Þóroddur’s wife doesn’t even look in my direction. She avoids the cowshed. But I have heard her laugh at the old woman’s predictions with the others.

There’s complete consensus about that in this household: the old crone is senile and not to be taken seriously. All of them are terrified and don’t understand why, but they never talk about that because no one wants to admit to his fear, neither to himself nor others.

Instead fear becomes the monster, the wolf bound that everyone knows will get free, and then the ancient tree will shudder.

Dwarves groan before doors of stone,

as the heavens split,

the sun turns black and

earth sinks into the sea.

 

 

Translation: Keneva Kunz

 

 

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GLAESIR – A STUDY IN EVIL

by Armann Jakobsson

(novel, 2011)

 

 

  “… despair burrows into the soul and even when it departs it leaves a void. Into that void evil will seed itself.”

Glaesir has experienced much. He fights a tough battle with himself and, alone and abandoned, takes stock of his life and his bleak destiny.

On his own in a dark cowshed he recites his life story to himself, its hopes and betrayals, honour and shame, loneliness and utter misfortune. His story is connected with political conflicts and a struggle for power. But who is this character whose past is such a tragedy – is he of this world or another, a monster or an ogre – or perhaps just a wretched animal? Only the old nanny suspects the truth about Glaesir.

In his new novel, Armann Jakobsson demonstrates an original take on our literary heritage and folk tales, with this account of an old man who turned into a ghost, unable to create, only to destroy.

Glaesir – A Study in Evil is at once eventful, dramatic and sparkling with humour, but above all brimming with emotion.

Chapters in English available.

204 pp

 

 

 ____________________________________________

 

 

   ARMANN JAKOBSSON is professor of medieval literature at the University of Icerland. He has written articles about social and cultural issues in newspapers and magazines for decades, as well as in-depth pieces on Icelandic literature. He is the author of diverse books of non fiction and poetry. Glaesir – A Study in Evil is his second novel.

 

 

 ____________________________________________

 

 

For further information please contact

Forlagid Publishing,

Braedraborgarstigur 7,

101 Reykjavik, Iceland

ua@forlagid.is;

vala@forlagid.is;

www.forlagid.is

 

 

 ____________________________________________

 

 

http://uni.hi.is/armannja/english/

 

 

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Reviews:

 

“Jakobsson has hit upon splendid material for this story, which he enlivens with readable dialogue and a fast-moving plot which he ultimately puts into a larger historical context: the little people are pawns of those in power … The narrator’s viewpoint is without doubt one of the most original we have seen for a long time … [Jakobsson is] learned but at the same time funny, clever and entertaining.” Pall Baldvin Baldvinsson / Frettatiminn

 

**** (4 stars) “It is fantastically well written, and constructed like the best of thrillers. It leads the reader on relentlessly, and guarantees a sleepless night of reading … a beautifully crafted story with references to the past as well as the present.” Fridrika Benonysdottir / Frettabladid

 

“… the story as told by Jakobsson is the story of a man who represents groups that rarely feature in central roles in our medieval literature. The story of people who are on the margins. Jakobsson’s knowledge, as an academic, of the living conditions of children, disabled people and slaves during the period of his story make the descriptions of the life and character of Thorolfur all the more profound and convincing.” Asdis Sigmundsdottir / Vidsja, National Broadcasting Service

 

“This story is skilfully put together; the author shows ingenuity, he has hit upon a fantastic idea which he  is very successful in developing … this [is] a very entertaining read and he is in complete command of his material. I found it exciting, I found it entertaining, in places very funny.” Pall Baldvin Baldvinsson / Kiljan, National TV

 

“… Clever solutions, the concept is good, it is well written … In my opinion he should be very proud, happy … [Jakobsson] surprised me. He is an academic … but here we have some rattling good fiction.” Kolbrun Bergthorsdottir / Kiljan, National TV

 

“… this story is lucid and entertaining. The style is lively and funny … Part of Eyrbyggja Saga gains new life in Jakobsson’s computer, resulting in a droll and very readable story. This is a story of persecution, power struggle, anger, hate and pain.”

Svavar Gestsson / svavar.is

 

**** (4 stars) Jakobsson’s novel is ingeniously and respectfully crafted … but the author nevertheless handles the material in his own personal way. … The main character, the narrator, is extremely unconventional.”

Einar Falur / Morgunbladid

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