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Öræfi—the Wastelands

by Ófeigur Sigurðsson
Translated from Icelandic by
Lytton Smith
Issue 27 Online Exclusive



The glacier gives back what it takes, they say, eventually brings it to light. Not long ago, pieces of mountaineering gear started appearing from under the glacial ice of Vatnajökull: crampons, a piolet, tent pegs, anchors, a pocket knife, field glasses, a thermos, a lantern, a corkscrew, a cake slice, sundry other little things—crushed, broken, badly worn down. They were found scattered around a small area, like after a shooting. The objects were brought to the Skaftafell Visitor Center for examination. Some of the items were monogrammed and so soon identified as being the possessions of an Austrian, Bernharður Fingurbjörg, someone who had gone far out onto Vatnajökull, all alone, on a research expedition, investigating the iceless mountain belt that rises from the glacier. It was chiefly the cake slice that identified him as the items’ owner: there were still folk alive who remembered the man with the Viennese cake slice, even though much had gone on in Öræfi—the Wastelands—at the time Bernharður was traveling. I met him in 2003 during his trip to Iceland; we were fellow travelers on a bus east of Öræfi. He went up to the mountains and onto the glacier while I went to the foothills; we never met again. An extensive search by farmers and a rescue team at the time came up empty-handed. One of the objects the glacier coughed up was a strongbox, more or less intact; the park ranger broke into it and saw it was filled with papers and writings. Glancing quickly inside, she didn’t look further than that the box contained a long letter Bernharður Fingurbjörg had written. The park ranger sent me the box; the letter was addressed to me.

Höf, Ísland




Ingólf reached this country first, at a place now called Ingólfshöfði.
Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements)


I was past exhaustion, writes the Austrian toponymist Bernharður Fingurbjörg in his letter to me, spring 2003. I crawled, Bernharður continues, into the Skaftafell Visitor Center, where I promptly lost consciousness. When I came to, a crowd of people was staring at me, but no one came over to help; my head was swimming; there was a large, open wound in my thigh, reminiscent of a crater, and I thought I saw glowing lava well from it, a burning torrent pouring itself out like a serpent writhing its spinal course towards a head that was actually a seething magma chamber. I was delirious. For a long time, no one did anything, then finally after much staring and gesturing a doctor was called; she happened to be on a camping trip with her family in Skaftafell at the time and came running full tilt to attend to me. I cannot find my mother, I told the doctor in my delirium, I cannot find my mother, I remember saying. I started to cry.

The doctor asked for clean linen or towels, a dishcloth, some organic soap, ethanol, toothpaste, whey, sugar, Brennivín, and an interpreter. The staff jumped to their feet and bounded in all directions at her requests. I heard it all at the periphery of my senses, from deep within my coma, and I saw it all before for me, I saw the rich flora of the valley opening up for me, dripping butter from every blade of grass, and I said: Butter drips from every blade!… People flocked around me in the Visitor Center, I could hear myself talking a soup of nonsense, the doctor again calling for an interpreter so she could understand what I had to say.

I later learned that this doctor was, in fact, a veterinarian, one of national reputation: Dr. Lassi, the district veterinarian from Suðurland, a superheroine in thick wax coat and cape, wearing high leather boots, a bottle-green felt hat on her head. Dr. Lassi said that it was beyond real that I’d emerged alive from the mountains without the rest of my party, given the extent of the injury to my thigh. I will help you find your mother, she said, stroking me, rubbing me like a newborn calf—or so Bernharður writes in his letter to me that spring.

When the interpreter got there, people noticed a strange expression on her face; she alone understood the fantastical tosh bubbling from me, the things Dr. Lassi later recorded in her report about the incident, although I was speaking splendid Icelandic—my father is Icelandic, and used his mother tongue around me so we would be able to talk to our relatives—but now came a flood of delirious German words, or rather Austrian, or, even more accurately, Viennese, to be precise, all a mumbled babble and humming, a soft lowing mix of various languages. Someone brought woolen fabrics and Dr. Lassi wrapped me up tenderly, saying, I’m swaddling you like a little boy going to sleep, I’ll watch over you, you’re my little bundle.

The Alpine Child, as the doctor’s report sometimes calls me, was taken by hay-cart over to the hotel in Freysnes, followed by a whole herd of people, according to the report, people who didn’t want to stop looking at me. The hotel in Freysnes is big and expansive and dependable and the cleanest building in the region, even though the roof had recently been blown off, and so it would rain inside the top floor rooms. The big old place had been warped at the foundations by the terrible power of gale force storms, and several people were at work with backhoes and tractors and bulldozers, pushing the building back into shape. The patient couldn’t very well be treated in the Visitor Center at Skaftafell thanks to the abundance of sweaty tourists and due to the air there, clogged with ancient, greasy, frying juices, while all the restrooms were piss-stained and shit-marked. Dr. Lassi had no intention of dealing with an open wound in such conditions, and so I woke with the dew, as the saying goes, to find myself on a rattling hay-wagon; I saw that my leg had turned icy blue splotched with white. Salmon pink pus bubbled from the wound. I thought I saw a snake crawling about in there, a fur hat on his head, a pipe in his mouth.

Dr. Lassi seemed familiar with the antiseptic revolution the Hungarian obstetrician, Dr. Semmelweis, brought about, I mused, there in the hay-wagon, how he saved countless lives with hand-washing and good hygiene for both mothers and newborns, perhaps Dr. Lassi knows of Dr. Semmelweis through the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, as I do: Céline wrote an important manuscript about Semmelweis when Céline himself qualified as an obstetrician, La Vie et L’oeuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis, really more a literary than a medical piece, I thought there in the hay-wagon on my way to Freysnes, many good writers have been doctors since these professions are by their nature similar…

It’s the custom in Öræfi to make do with whatever lies to hand, and Dr. Lassi was well acquainted with that region, having steeped herself in regional life; she felt herself to be a true Öræfingur on her vacations at the Skaftafell campsite with her family and camper van; they would arrive early each spring before lambing started, a time when there were fewer tourists around. This year, their vacation had run together with Easter, which fell later than normal. Dr. Lassi didn’t hesitate in her task, injecting me with horse tranquilizer via a horse syringe, the sight of which turned me white: I’ve dosed you with the butter-drug, my friend, said Dr. Lassi, and you’ll feel a little numb, without cares; you’re heading to another home but still remaining with us, so watch carefully now, watch everything carefully and tell me what you see.

The patient’s case revolves around a significant injury to his leg, Dr. Lassi wrote shortly after in her report: the foot had frostbite and septicemia or gangrene had begun to develop in the upper thigh, an ugly fleshrot known as coldburn, had entered the bone; a large chunk had been bitten out of the thigh, probably several days ago, in a bad frost, Dr. Lassi’s report concludes. I examined the wound and saw at once the bite was from something with straight teeth, not canines, thought it can hardly have been a man who bit this kid in the leg, writes Dr. Lassi, unless it was someone with an oddly large mouth, like Mick Jagger, but it is highly unlikely he’s on a trip to the East Skaftafell region at this exact moment, nor could such a decent man turn utterly brutal without warning, admittedly if he’s been out west for a short time holed up in a small cave the possibility can’t be completely ruled out, but there’s no chance you’d find a cave amid the black sands here, amid the surf and the oceanic erosion—no, some wild animal bit the boy, some highly-evolved wild animal with transverse-ridged teeth… Dr. Lassi jotted the three periods of an ellipsis in her report; the interpreter is standing right there, just some timid country girl. What’s the guy saying? Dr. Lassi asked the interpreter and the interpreter pricked up her ears: He’s telling his mom not to go over to some green Mercedes Benz, he’s repeating that phrase again and again, he’s looking for her and can’t find her.

Dr. Lassi and the interpreter scanned their eyes over me for a long time, their garrulous patient, until Dr. Lassi got angry about the continual delay in fetching clean towels and the rest of the things she asked for; lacking the necessary items, she started taking off her own clothes. Underneath she was wearing grey woolen underwear and some kind of tank top; she tried to remove my pants but couldn’t without causing me pain so she vigorously cut the pants legs open with a pocket knife. Dr. Lassi slipped off her underclothes and made a tourniquet above the wound using her bra, then untied the scarf I’d bound there to cut off my circulation, a scarf now thick with coagulated blood. Dr. Lassi’s was in good shape, and people were embarrassed to suddenly have a naked lady there inside the hotel room. She cried out for vodka and whiskey and Brennivín and spirits and toothpaste and any books that might be found out here, maps, almanacs…everything! shouted Dr. Lassi. People leapt to their feet and disappear about the hotel, searching in the kitchen and the toilets, opening all the cupboards, going into bedrooms; someone picked up the phone and made a call. Amid all this a bottle came flying as if summoned by the shouting itself, responding of its own accord…Dr. Lassi plucked it out the air and upturned it over her underwear, cleaning her youth’s thigh with great care and devotion, she took a decent swig herself then poured the dregs sensually into my mouth, like I was her lover dying in a mountain cabin… after finishing up, Dr. Lassi got to her feet; she wrapped herself in her wax overcoat to hide her nakedness, but people still looked at her with large, predatory eyes.

In the report there are arguments about how it wouldn’t have served any purpose to call an ambulance: it’s 350 kilometers to the nearest hospital since the community was reunified, a 12-hour drive given how much there is to see on the way, things one simply has to stop and examine, all kinds of natural wonders which no one could remain unmoved by—and the helicopter was busy out west in the fjords doing something, with the Viking Task Force shooting rogue cattle or out with reporters, capturing images of Mick Jagger some damn place, Dr. Lassi writes, and there’s no port anywhere in Suðurland, just immense breakers crashing over the sands and across the wilderness; in order to steer a ship to land here, you’d need to know by heart an article written by the “fire cleric” Jón Steingrímsson, Um að ýta og lenda í brimsjó fyrir söndum (“How to Sail in Rough Seas and Land on the Sand)—a text everyone has neglected over the years; the article isn’t part of the education curriculum and the consequences for today’s travelers are most grave.

Dr. Lassi asked for all the toothpaste in the hotel: once gathered, the toothpaste was to be squeezed from its tubes into a large bowl; she also needed a trowel or a tile float. Several people got to work on this. These tiny tubes are appalling, said Dr. Lassi. And then Dr. Lassi needed a saw: she stretched out her hand, looked up to the heavens and asked for a saw but no saw appeared in her palm; there wasn’t a saw to be found at the hotel in Freysnes, which shocked many people. No saw? I have saws a-plenty at home, said old Mugg from Bölti, if we were at my house, you could have your pick of saws, Dr. Lassi, I have all kinds of saws, wood saws, hacksaws, wheel saws, a saber saw, a table saw, a chainsaw… At the hotel, there were blunt, non-serrated kitchen knives of every kind (only soft food was served there) and a number of highly sharp pocket knives, whetted on emery, all arrayed on a tray the local farmers offered to Dr. Lassi so she could carry out her mission; Flosi from Svínafell said that perhaps there might be an angle grinder in his jeep, could she possibly make use of such a thing?… That’ll do it! Dr. Lassi’s exclamation echoed around the hotel, already wobbling on its foundation, the patient is totally out of it… What did you give the fellow? demanded Jakob from Jökullfell quietly, why does it smell of hay? It’s butter syrup! cried Dr. Lassi, made from silage, a domestic-designed and produced medicine, often used for date rape; even if the good gentleman wakes up, he won’t remember anything after the operation, won’t feel a thing during it, all because of how effective the medicine is. Flosi from Svínafell came back from his vehicle; the angle grinder leapt to life and the hotel was splattered red with gore; people felt the mountains dim and the glacier crack and the sands moan… Dr. Lassi was dexterous with the angle grinder, taking the leg off at the asshole and scrotum with swift hacks. It saved the tourist’s life, Dr. Lassi writes a little further on in her report, and it was necessary—because of the acute abscesses, infections, deep freezing and frost and fleshrot and coldburn—to entirely sever one of his ass cheeks, and also his penis; the tourist was then sewn back together with twine sterilized in Brennivín; the asshole was saved, although it would have been safer to take it, too, but a person’s style lies in their ass, Dr. Lassi writes in her report, before proceeding to provide a literary survey of the area.

Rumor has it Dr. Lassi sent the pecker into town on a bus, rolled in cellophane and packed in a cooler to preserve it. The package was addressed to an acquaintance of hers at the Icelandic Phallological Museum, describing this gift as a contribution to high culture and urging the Minister, the maiden-king of Icelandic culture, to take this thing ceremoniously out of its cooler and hand it off to the superintendent of the Phallological Museum and make a little speech. The ceremony was shown prime time on the national television news. There’s no leg museum and no buttock museum, said the Minister of Education, but we’re proud of the Phallological Museum. Back east in Öræfi, there was nothing for it but to discard the leg and ass-cheek in the trash incinerator in Svínafell, an incinerator which heats the swimming pool Flosalaug, casting a grilling smell over the countryside in the spring breeze, a fragrant mix of smoke and soot and trash fumes.

The nasal-voiced regional reporter from the State Broadcasting Service in Suðurland reached Öræfi despite sandstorms at Skeiðarársand having rendered his car entirely plain, stripping all the markings from it; he interviewed Dr. Lassi after news of this mysterious accident spread, asking about the vet’s impressive initiative and the case of the man whose life Dr. Lassi had worked so remarkably to save, the Alpine Child. In an interview broadcast via telephone, Dr. Lassi said she had no choice but to amputate… dismember, whispered the language consultant at the State Broadcasting Company into the small headphone in the regional news correspondent’s ear… dismemberment, repeated the language consultant in the ear of the correspondent… dismemberment, blurted out the correspondent in front of Dr. Lassi… the dismemberment of the Alpine Child at the hotel in Freysnes, said Dr. Lassi, I was forced to take off a leg, I had no time to lose if the youth was going to live. Dr. Lassi showed the correspondent the leg and butt check, lifted the piece up and shook it a little bit and let it crackle over the microphone where it rattled the wider population, it’ll be discarded in the trash incinerator, Dr. Lassi told to the radio listeners, to heat up Flosalaug, which is usually heated with tourist trash but the tourists won’t have arrived this early in the spring, they arrive with the migratory birds… this is energy… trash is energy… all material is energy, she said, somewhat off track… but the nasal regional correspondent from the State Broadcasting Service asked, energetically: Is it fun being a veterinarian!? Yes, it’s fun, said Dr. Lassi, when things are going well. Then they went around the hotel and showed the correspondent the sights, the blood-drenched angle grinder and the maids cleaning the wallpaper. Is it true a sheep bit this man? asked the correspondent, but Dr. Lassi replied carefully that the man had been attacked by wild animals some place up in Öræfi, the Wastelands, where he had been all winter or even for several winters, said Dr. Lassi, and that’s a violation of the law, I cannot say for how many centuries the laws have been broken here in the country… but as to whether a wild sheep bit the man, I cannot say: I don’t know what bit him, but something did. At the end of the interview the correspondent explained somewhat frankly the journey the penis had made by bus to Reykjavík, its warm reception, and the place of honor it could expect there in the capital.

Dr. Lassi settled down in the Öræfi region while she attended her patient at the hotel in Freysnes, ordering her family to stick around in the camper van at Skaftafell and not to trouble themselves, no matter what happened. I must write my report, Dr. Lassi told her family; she had resolved to find out what had happened in the wilderness, where the traveling Alpiner had been, where he came from… It’s not possible to saw off someone’s leg and save their life and then just walk away; that would be unethical, writes Dr. Lassi in her report… How educated are you!? Dr. Lassi shouted at me like I was deaf from the pain in my leg, no longer a leg but a phantom limb, that was the first thing she wanted to know… how educated is he!? Dr. Lassi shouted at the interpreter, who she felt was being sluggish, reluctant to translate… He’s a student, the interpreter reported to Dr. Lassi, he’s studying in the Department of Nordic Studies at the University of Vienna… And what’s he doing there!? asked Dr. Lassi, loud and clear. He is looking for his mother… no, wait, he’s writing a dissertation in Toponymy? Toponymy? Toponymy? Well, fine, but is that really a field of study these days? Dr. Lassi asked the interpreter… And is he called anything other than “the child”? He’s called Bernharður, the interpreter said to Dr. Lassi, Bernharður Fingurbjörg, from Vienna.

Ófeigur Sigurðsson (b. 1975) has published six books of poetry and two novels, including Jón (2010), the first Icelandic novel to receive the European Union Prize for Literature. Öræfi won the Icelandic Literature Prize; the Icelandic booksellers’ association selected it as the best novel of 2015.
Lytton Smith is the author of two books of poetry from Nightboat Books and the translator of numerous works from the Icelandic. Öræfi—the Wastelands, translated from the Icelandic of Ófeigur Sigurðsson, will be published by Deep Vellum in Spring 2018. He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo.