Kristín Eiríksdóttir

Translated from Icelandic by Christopher Burawa



     It was Sunday and on Sundays Dad relaxed, sat the whole day in the living room in his mottled sweat suit, listening to records and reading science fiction or hi-fi magazines. He didn't want to be disturbed.
     I remember his hair, he dyed it black. In the mornings he combed it with gel and mousse; he mumbled as he stroked his glistening raven-black mane. His skin was white and flabby as if he ate nothing but sponge cake.
     On this Sunday my brother and Mom were home. He sat in the living room, ungroomed in overalls, listening to records and flipping through the newspaper. Suddenly he called out to me. I was sitting on the floor in the foyer playing with my button collection, which I kept in an oblong tin box with a picture of Egyptian mummies on it. He startled me. I went to him in the living room and he stroked my hair.
     Let's go out to the garden, he said.
     It was summer, the grass bright green and freshly mown, the sprinkler sprayed water in a circle, the fence beautiful with a new coat of paint. In the parking lot between the houses someone in a helmet rode a BMX bike all alone. Dad went into the garage and got a shovel, he began digging a hole in the middle of the yard.
     Are we going to dig for treasure? I asked and suddenly became a little
worried for my button collection, but he didn't answer me.
     Watch me dig, he wheezed and I waited as Dad vanished deeper into the hole, the shovel swinging and dirt raining down.
     I was confused, I didn't know what Dad planned to do with the hole, what we would be putting into it and why.
     When the hole was as deep as Dad, as long as a grave, and the dirt pile as tall as me, he climbed out. He was sweaty across the chest and red in the face, between gasps he told me that I now had to fill in the hole myself.
     But Dad, I asked, aren't we going to put something in it first?
     He shook his head and folded his arms; I began shoveling dirt into the hole.
     I remember wondering why I needed to fill an empty hole with nothing but dirt and worms. Loose dirt takes up more space than packed earth and once I finished filling it in there was a burial mound in the middle of the yard.
     We went back inside, Dad sat back down in the living room to browse through his magazines, and I played war with the buttons from my box.

     That was the day before Dad disappeared. No one figured it out until late in the evening, after Mom phoned his work friends who told her that Dad hadn't even shown up that morning.
     I was only six years old and didn't understand what was happening right away, didn't understand why anybody would leave, why vanish like that. But I remember all of us searched for Dad—first for him, then for clues. Someone ripped up the garden. I remember that. The lawn was all torn up.
     Some people stalked through the swamp near our neighborhood. It was at night and they held flashlights and lanterns, I saw them through my bedroom window. No one called out Dad's name, which I thought strange. All these bouncing lights in the darkness and silence.
     A month after Dad disappeared my brother found the first clue. I don't know why he stuck his hand in the pipe under the kitchen sink. Maybe he had a hunch, maybe the sink was stopped up.
     But he put his hand in the old, disgusting plastic water pipe; it jutted out, cut open and useless.
     The clue he found was a small container that Dad had bought when he was a kid, when he went to Morocco with Grandpa and Grandma. It was as small as a bottle cap and made from thin polished wood; the picture on the lid had peeled off and no one knew what it might have been. My brother opened the box and inside it was a note. On the note Dad had written one word in block letters: EITUR—"poison."

     Mom began crying again. She hadn't been crying as much as she was after Dad first disappeared.
     But after my brother showed her the box, she closed the drapes, locked herself in her bedroom, and let out those painful sobs that my brother and I couldn't stand.
     We sat on the swings next to our house and inspected the note, held it up to the sunlight to see if Dad had written something on it with invisible ink, but there was only that one word. EITUR.

     My brother was almost ten years old. And after Dad disappeared his personality changed a lot. He stopped teasing me, which I thought was wonderful, but I missed his smile, his stupid jokes.
     Now he became serious, as if he was pretending to be a grown-up, and if I tried to tease him he never got mad, he would just say to me in a low voice that I should stop misbehaving and leave him alone.
     Could Dad have taken poison? he asked, turning pale. I shook my head.
     No, I said. He got on a boat and sailed into the Bermuda Triangle, fell into a quagmire and piranhas ate him alive.
     I was getting bored with all the seriousness around my father's disappearance; after he left there was nothing but darkness at home and I wasn't even allowed to play. My brother slapped me hard across the face, stood up, and headed quickly in the direction of our house.

     I found the second clue. My brother was depressed because he searched all over the place for more clues but never found anything.
     I was toasting a piece of bread and looking for the preserves when I saw a piece of tape.
     The tape was wide and the same color as particleboard. I pulled back one edge and peeled it off, behind it was a small hole in the veneer, the size of a thimble. I put my finger in the hole; there was something inside that I tweaked out. It was a tiny blob.
     I snuck the blob into my bedroom, put it down on my desk, and brought out a magnifying glass that I stole from Dad's den. I directed the lamplight onto the little blob, which was speckled just like a gold nugget, and raised the magnifying glass to my eye.
     I saw it was probably dried up glue, but there was something inside it. I began kneading it with my fingers and discovered a tiny, hard pellet. Under the magnifying glass the pellet was blue and green and white and brown, a globe. Poison, the earth. I tried to understand the connection between the two clues, but got nowhere.

     When my brother came home I showed him what I found. He studied the clue with the magnifying glass, then looked at me, seemed unsure, and looked even more depressed.
     The next day, after he had recovered from his mood, we put the globe inside the Moroccan box and my brother went pale again:
     Could Dad have taken poison in Morocco? he asked. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

     We put the clues inside a shoebox and hid it behind some old cloth and sewing things that Mom kept on a top shelf in my brother's room. We didn't tell her anything about the clues, we didn't mention them at all.
     They would be our secret until we were through collecting enough to figure out what had happened to Dad. We realized that no one would take them seriously, or that's what my brother said.
     People didn't understand how Dad thought, he said, and I wondered what that would be like, how our Dad thought.
     Before he disappeared he spent most of his time at work; he worked for a large collection agency. He would come home tired at night and my brother and I tried not to bother him or make him angry. If we forgot and were loud or began fighting—like we did sometimes before he disappeared— he would raise his voice, slam doors.
     He shoved my brother once, swung at him thoughtlessly, and my brother locked himself in the bathroom. I stood outside the door, knocking lightly. I didn't know what to say. I just knew my brother was sad and when he was sad I automatically became sad too.

     Often there were long stretches between finding clues, and then sometimes we might find several in a row. The next year we began finding them again—in a chink of the wall, in the creases of the furniture.
     The very last one was securely taped inside a broken lampshade that I found in the garage. I tore off the tape and a photograph fell into my lap. It was taken at Thingvellir Lake; it was of my brother and mother.
     In the photo, they're standing on the veranda of the summerhouse that Dad's company rented out to employees in the summer. With serious faces, squinting against the sunlight streaming straight into their eyes and creating sharp shadows. My brother is wearing only underwear with his baby belly popping out, and he's clinging to a stuffed animal.
     Mom is skinny, her straight hair put up in a knot and light bangs falling across her forehead. She has a tender look on her face, wearing a pale pink summer dress.
     When I saw Mom in the photo I became very sad, I felt almost like she was fading out into the sunlight. I was guilty. We were often so difficult, my brother and I, and Mom so powerless, as if she didn't have the energy to care for us, to yell at us, to discipline us.
     I stuck my hand back into the lampshade, felt around, and found another piece of tape, another photograph.
     At first I couldn't make out what was in the photo. Eventually I finally figured out it had once been a picture of me in my crib. Dad had drawn along the outline of the baby's body with Wite-Out and filled it in. I turned the photograph over and on the back was written, in Wite-Out, white on white: EITUR.

     Now the word jumbled around in my mind and changed. Inga Rut Elliða - dóttir—my name. EITUR. My name. I curled into a ball and cried. I finally understood that I was the reason that Dad left, because I am POISON.
     Many days passed before I showed my brother the photographs.
     One night he came home from band practice, was in such a great mood, made himself a sandwich, whistling loudly.
     He sat down at the kitchen table and began eating his sandwich. I sat across from him, laid the photos down in front of him, told him where I had found them and he stopped chewing.
     He lifted them up, felt along each edge and tossed them down on the table. I felt another pang of guilt, for ruining his good mood.
     Don't you understand? I said. It's my name. EITUR.
     My brother's eyes opened wide. Forget it, he said. The old man went to hell, he's probably getting drunk somewhere in Thailand, he doesn't care about us, he can eat shit.


     A long time after Dad disappeared I stood in the living room of my house, holding a kitchen knife and pointing it at my boyfriend.
     He knocked the knife out of my hand, kicked it into a corner, lifted me up and threw me across the room; I landed on the cocktail table.
     Glass and bottles exploded, shards flew everywhere, and our neighbors called the police. They came fifteen minutes later. I was covered in blood and my boyfriend was winding a rag around a bad cut on my ankle.
     As they were trying to decide what they would do with us, one of them snooped around in the kitchen cupboards and found a stash of Ketamine that we were keeping for a friend of ours who was serving a short jail sentence. We were arrested.
     My boyfriend was found guilty for various minor infractions but I was ordered by the judge to enroll in an alcohol treatment program and I was still sober a few months later. The social service agency offered me a referral to a psychologist at a discount and I met with the woman once a week. I would begin crying as soon as I entered the waiting room and the first visit I did little more than sob unintelligibly, blowing my nose in the tissues she offered up immediately and with great sympathy.
     She was very interested in Dad, the clues, my brother, Mom, and I laid it all out, telling her everything that I could remember.
     I drank practically every day ever since I was thirteen and did a lot of bad things. According to the psychologist I was, at the time of my arrest, in some kind of shock and lacked the will to live.
     I felt I didn't know anything or couldn't do anything and had nothing to live for.
     The psychologist asked me to think this over and come up with a list of things that I was good at, but nothing occurred to me.
     Finally I told her that I would make a good hooker, I was good at getting men to feel that they were important.
     She didn't reply. She only scribbled in her little book and continued talking about Dad. She had Dad on the brain, it was as if she believed that in the end the answer to all my problems lay in thinking about why my father left.
     Slowly but surely I got better and with the help of the psychologist I developed an interest in photography. She told me that my language was full of imagery, that I had a unique way of looking at the world, and she proposed that I get myself a camera. She was absolutely right, I have a keen eye for light and color.

     My brother and I began communicating again, after years of having no contact whatsoever. He lived in Denmark, was married, had children, and worked as a web designer. He was the exact opposite of me, he did well in school, was the responsible sort and full of ambition.
     After two years of sobriety he encouraged me to apply to a photography school in Copenhagen.
     I was accepted and moved in with my brother and his family, went to school, and looked after my nephews. Mom came for more and more visits, and finally rented herself a small apartment near my brother's house. We became a family again.
     We never spoke about Dad. After all this time we still couldn't bring up the subject. The man-sized hole between us three.

     I was the one who found him. Our meeting was one of those unexplainable, chance events, just like the time my fingers rooted around a hollow in the wall when I was little and found something that he had left behind him. A word or a camel the size of a grain of rice.
     The camel stood half buried in chewing gum under one of the kitchen chairs and I came across it when I was dragging a chair nearer to the table a whole five years after he'd disappeared.

     I walked aimlessly down to the harbor to take some photographs. A large ship was unloading cargo containers, on one of them was a picture of a camel and the ship was marked as sailing out of Casablanca, Morocco.
     I photographed the container and the ship without thinking back to the Moroccan box and rice-sized camel. Then I saw the men on the dock open the container and cover their noses.
     I crept closer and smelled it too.
     It was the odor of a space that had been undisturbed for many months. Dad's smell. I knew it right away.

     The sailors stood at the container hatch and retched. I went over to them, covered my mouth and nose with my hand, and walked right in. They didn't try to stop me, they probably were too surprised to react.
     The container was outfitted like a house, full of cans, food wrappers, empty bottles, leftovers.
     On the walls hung photos of naked women and newspaper clippings from all over the world. The body lay on a mattress in the corner of the container, the features had sloughed off and maggots covered every inch.

     The funeral was in Copenhagen. We wanted to put him into the earth as quickly as possible, where he could continue to rot in peace.
     When I saw the coffin in the ground it triggered something in my mind and I remembered the day before he disappeared, when he asked me to come outside with him into the garden and dig a hole.
     The event was so fuzzy in my memory I wasn't sure if it even happened. Mom stood between my brother and me, she cried but we were dry-eyed, held her, didn't hear a word the minister said to us.
     A few days later we went to the container. Mom refused to come along. She didn't want to hear anything about Dad and I understood that, in her heart, Mom hoped that he wasn't dead, the idea that he chose to disappear like he did was still too much for her.
     In the cardboard boxes set along the wall were souvenirs. They were wrapped carefully in newspaper and sawdust.
     We examined a shrunken head, ivory from Africa, Incan statues from Peru, geisha dolls from Japan and all sorts of strange relics whose origins were a complete mystery to us. We didn't know if Dad bought these things as investments or collected them simply for his own enjoyment.
     Alongside the mattress lay a stack of notebooks. We looked through them and saw that they were crammed full of his attempts at writing fiction. They were numbered from one to one hundred, some chapters he had rewritten many times, always in those awkward block letters.

     The novel was titled Freedom and dealt with a man who cut himself loose from a gray, monotonous existence and traveled the world. The narrative was unsophisticated and concerned a certain protagonist, a tall and well-built Icelander who was known only as "The Viking" in every port, always getting into trouble but saving himself with his cunning.
     Amid these escapades were accounts of sexual conquests. Stories of Congolese black girls with big asses, submissive Asian beauties, promiscuous Inuit girls, and teenage Ukrainian prostitutes.
     We read one of these episodes and my brother threw the notebook down and grabbed his forehead.
     I can't do this, he groaned and got himself a beer.
     It was the middle of the night and we sat in the dining room. I kept on reading and with each word I was grateful that I didn't know the man who wrote them. I could tell from the narrative that he had an unbridled love for himself.
     A love that destroyed everyone who came near him, and made him oblivious to its consequences. Blind love.
     I asked myself why that was. Whether something at his core might really be beautiful, something that others couldn't perceive but that he alone knew he possessed. Maybe this hidden something gave him his ever-renewed justification to seek out love and admiration.
     My brother buried his head in his arms on the table. I stroked the back of his neck to comfort him but then realized that he was laughing.


Excerpted from Best European Fiction 2011, forthcoming from
Dalkey Archive Press.




- - - - - -

Kristín Eiríksdóttir was born in 1981 in Reykjavík, Iceland. A graduate of the Icelandic School of Visual Art, she is completing her master's in painting and drawing at Concordia University in Canada. Her first book of poetry, Kjötbærinn (Chop City), was published in 2004. Two more books of poetry and drawings followed in swift succession. She is a member of Nýhil, a movement seeking to redefine Iceland’s literary landscape.

Christopher Burawa is a poet and translator. He has received a 2006 Witter Bynner Translation Residency, a 2007 Literature Fellowship for Translation from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 2008 American-Scandinavian Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship. He is the Director of the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.






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