Nonfiction Winner: Kate Angus
When We Were Vikings
On the cliffs, we scaled glacial ice and leapt from stone to stone across rivers at the crest just before the water cascaded down the slope in torrents. On the coastline, we slogged through knee-deep kelp, and I told the sculptor that I felt like I was wading through a giant birth canal because the seaweed was wet and thick and dark red as placenta. Sometimes the trail was a dirt road and once—very briefly—we had the luxury of pavement; often there wasn’t a trail, so when we continued with the road, we walked blindly across loose stones in the direction lion-haired Henry pointed. On the easy days, we followed paths the sheep left when their hooves crushed the moss into an indentation like a ribbon that wound around thickets of teeth-shorn bilberry bushes. On the hardest day, we grabbed sparse handfuls of bracken to help hoist ourselves up the slope because the scree field footing was too uncertain. When the wind snagged my backpack, yanking me sideways, and part of the bracken roots pulled loose, I looked down and thought, I could die here.
In the middle of one endless afternoon, we found an abandoned house in an empty valley. There was a broken bed inside (rusty coils protruding like strange flowers from the stained mattress fabric) and a sign in Icelandic that our guides refused to decipher.
The Irish painter picked up a mostly-full bottle of red wine from the floor and took a swig.
And then when she told us, “Have some. You can’t refuse gifts from the trail gods,” we did what she said and then kept walking.
* * * *
According to the principles of journalism, I need to answer the following questions:
Where [did this happen]?
In the Westfjords in northwestern Iceland. On a peninsula full of fjords and sharp cliffs—when you look at it on a map, it looks as if its coastline was made by someone anxious who loves scissors and calmed herself by cutting dozens of tiny incisions into the paper where the land meets water.
How [did you get there]?
By seeing a listing on an international artists’ residency website and, insomnia-ridden, applying late at night. By culling a collection of personal essays and poems. By writing an artist’s statement full of eloquent lies stating I was experienced in outdoors activities like foraging. By having aesthetic overlap with the residency committee or maybe someone just didn’t want to decide, so he threw darts at the stacks of paper he’d been sent to evaluate and one dart landed on my application. By then entering a process of borrowing (a sleeping bag from Suzie, my dad’s backpack) and buying (hiking boots I broke in running errands in Manhattan). Through gifts and stipend and debt. By riding one airplane over the cold blue sea to Reykjavik and another one across volcanic fields to Isafjordur.
Who [was with you]?
Three writers and nine artists. Seven of us were from the United States (mostly Brooklyn), but there was also a novelist from London and a Scottish guide, an Australian video artist who told us about Aboriginal sacred rocks, the Irish painter, and the man no one liked who was Canadian.
Why [were you there]?
Because the previous year, grief clamped its iron teeth around me, and I flailed like a fox in a metal jaw trap; I hoped going to the wilderness would be a way of gnawing free. I thought if I stayed in New York, I would claw my own skin off.
What [caused that sorrow]?
That happens in a different essay, not this one.
* * * *
The main traces left by the Vikings on the land are twofold: the absence of trees, the presence of horses. When this terrain was young, there were forests, but early settlers cut all the trees down and used the timber to build houses and as fuel burned for heat in Iceland’s unspeakable winters. Now the only lumber you can find to make a campfire are old fence posts salvaged from abandoned farms and driftwood from other countries that beach here.
We associate the Vikings with movement rather than stasis. We imagine the dragon-headed ships slicing through waves, and when the raiders disembark, they destroy everything. If a village is an egg, they are the hand that cracks the shell, leaving only shards behind them. Or, to abandon this image, what remains are the charred husks of houses, limbs and wet entrails strewn across the ground—all the livestock and villagers slaughtered who weren’t taken as slaves. Rare is the creature (animal or human) left behind who survived them.
But the root word vik is surprisingl
y peaceful; it means “inlet or small bay.”
In Old Norse, viking is a feminine noun that denotes a voyage overseas—the word means the act, rather than a person.
The masculine noun vikingr signifies the seafaring warrior.
If you conflate people with language, this means women are an act that’s undertaken, as in the Icelandic sagas where fara i viking translates as to go on a raiding expedition, and men are active (all that looting and ransacking; all that rape and pillage).
In the early Viking era, the word didn’t belong to any particular map. By the 9th century, in Old English, wicing refers to Scandinavian raiders. By Scandinavian, historians mean not only those who come from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland (here I greet you, my ancestors), but also from areas they settled, like the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands. Like Iceland which was empty of people before the Vikings arrived with their shaggy horses.
According to a thread found deep on an Internet site about Viking history, the Germans called them ascomanni or ashmen. I’m not fluent, so I don’t know if this translation references the soot left behind after their pillaging or the wood used to build their ships, or if this is simply what’s called a false friend: a coincidence of language that means nothing. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t always trust what is written. For example, according to the site I found, ascomanni is German, but actually the word is Italian.
One thing that we think we know about the Vikings but really is false is that they loaded their dead in ships they set aflame and sent drifting across the water. This is a myth—a distortion of history we believe because the idea is more beautiful than what really happened. In truth, they burned the corpse ships in a pyre on the land; more frequently, they buried their dead in cairns, round rock piles that rose like tumors across the landscape. But sometimes the ships could still be a coffin—the boat buried within the domed stones. Imagine the ship carried into the cairn, how dark the last ocean it would ride was.
The Vikings plundered from everyone they encountered, but we keep a handful of words English took from them: knife, plough, leather, axle, crook, raft, bylaw, husband, heathen, ransack, Hell, Wednesday (Woden’s day, named for Odin), Thursday (Thor’s day), Tuesday for Tyr, and Friday for Freya.
What we know about the Vikings is that they loved skaldic poetry and wrote on runestones.
What we know about the Vikings is that after Erik the Red was banished from Iceland for manslaughter, he settled Norse Greenland, and his son, Leif, settled further, sailing almost 2,000 miles to the New World where he discovered Helluland, land of the flat stones; Markland, the land of forests, and Vinland, the land of wine or, in another translation, meadows. This means the Vikings stepped on the sand of North America’s shores before Columbus.
What we know is that they left behind iron chisels, ship rivets, chess pieces, and oaken ship fragments. Sometimes they traded for furs and food, and sometimes they slaughtered peaceful strangers sleeping under skin-covered canoes, but they did not pretend friendship to hand out blankets promising warmth and comfort but that instead delivered smallpox’s slow kill. What we know about the Vikings is that they were not interested in treachery; their violence was open and clean.
What we know about the Vikings is that they went out and took what they wanted.
You never do that; you worry you might hurt people, you give up, you always ask for permission. Why don’t you ever fight for things?
* * * * *
It is restful not to look at yourself for days because you left your mirror behind.
It is restful not to be able to check your email or your phone or log onto Facebook, so if you do cry, you have to do so without staring at pictures of someone whose absence is rough sandpaper scouring the inside of your ribs and seeing how happy he looks drinking beer at parties without you.
It is a sweet relief that you have no external objects like the mirror or your newsfeed to refer to when you try to gauge if you are pretty or failing.
It is unpleasant to sleep on a thin mat on the ground, even though you can smell the moss and wild Arctic thyme from inside your closed tent shell.
It is unpleasant to dream of Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with rocks and walking into the water. It is worse to know that because you are a woman and a writer and sometimes sad, if you tell your therapist this dream she will ask if you identify with Woolf and when you say you don’t—that you barely even remember Mrs. Dalloway except that it has something to do with a party—your therapist will then ask you if you think you’re being evasive.
It is unpleasant to try to bathe in rivers that are snow melt, so you try to learn to love your own pungency.
It is unpleasant to look for rocks large enough to squat behind so you can shit in a hole you have dug in the ground.
It is, depending on your perspective, fitting or repugnant that, no matter how thoroughly you bury it, the Arctic foxes you hear barking staccato laughter at night will dig up your shit to consume. What has been eaten is eaten, and everything you think beautiful is—in a different context—ugly.
Over centuries, the wind in the valley has carved deep grooves into the rock, so the mountains look like silent giants wearing impassive faces. Every time you do shit, you apologize to the mountain.
nbsp; The mountains don’t care about your body and its humiliating human needs.
The mountain doesn’t care, and yet you believe it actively gave you three presents.
The first gift is an oval stone: gray as the almost-twilight and starred with lichen. The Irish painter handed this to you at your campsite on the last morning, saying, I found this, and I felt like it belonged to you.
The second stone is a russet basalt that rests heavy in your hand and is heart-shaped (not as in anatomy, but instead hearts as we imagine them). If you lift it to your mouth and blow across the tiny holes, it makes a thin wind sound, a kind of singing.
When you were trudging up the highest slope, a few hours after you almost lost your balance, you were thinking about what might be the impossibility of motherhood; about how old you have grown and—against your will—how solitary. You were thinking about somebody you loved who did not love you. You were thinking about whether or not you could have made other choices had you been wiser or braver or more beautiful. You were thinking about the finite number of eggs hidden in the dovecote of your body. You were thinking how tender you would be with a baby at your breast and how your body—poor dumb animal—tosses and turns all night because there is an absence, and you’re afraid that absence echoes so loudly that it drowns out any other music.
You were wondering if you want something and it never happens, is that the same as a loss?
You were thinking about children and the ghosts of almost-children.
You were staring at the scree field as you walked because you didn’t trust—although you had to trust—your own footing. You were thinking this walk forced you to relearn how to use your body.
You almost stepped on the third gift; the one you brought back that now sits on your desk as a paperweight, as a reminder of a place where you could have died but didn’t.
The thing the mountain gave you that will sit on your desk is a gray slab the size of your hand with a round concavity in the center cradling three rocks the size and shape of marbles children play with.
What the mountain gave you is a nest made of stone.
You can look at the stone nest as a symbol of either fertility or infertility. The eggs can never hatch, and stasis is a kind of death, and yet a symbol is an object that represents an abstract thing, so the nest could also be an augury of a future condition.
You have to decide what you believe is possible and hold it tightly.
The thing is, you can’t know; the future just unfolds. As with everything, you can only hope that what you want is what happens.
* * * * *
There is a beauty in the simplicity of hiking: step, step, step, step. If you match your breath to your footsteps, it’s easy to stop thinking. You try to find the right path.
You carry weight behind you: this is the past. Step. Step. You keep walking.