On Sigfús Bjartmarsson
“. . . among the great masters of Icelandic letters.“
Recipient of the Dagblaðið-Vísir Critics’ Award for literary excellence, Raptorhood won popular admiration for an author who had long intrigued critics. While most post-war Icelandic authors cultivated a bare-bones style influenced by the Sagas and socialist realism, Sigfús Bjartmarsson (b. 1955) took the rapier wit of popular oral poetry and, like Laxness before him, departed the island to devour world literature. He has travelled widely in Latin America, translating Paz and Borges. Sigfús Bjartmarsson’s travelogue, The Sunshine Bus Is Late Tonight, was nominated for National Book of the Year in 2001. Selections from Bjartmarsson’s four verse collections have been translated into seven languages. In December 2001 he was awarded the Icelandic National Radio Award for lifetime achievement in literature.
Copyright Sigfús Bjartmarsson 1998; translation copyright Sarah M. Brownsberger 2007.
Raptorhood is a who’s who of voracity, from rat to man, and a “saints’ lives” for all species, including our own, that may sacrifice themselves to appetite. Through eighteen riveting stories, Sigfús Bjartmarsson follows a zero-sum game between the varmints of the Great North — such as the gyrfalcon, gray seal, and mink — and their rival predator, human civilization.
An Icelandic hunter and fisherman extols the animals’ virtues even as he battles them for the slim-pickings of the tundra. He delights in the polar bear’s silent amphibious attack, an eagle’s power to intimidate, a fox’s knack for disappearing.
As the young man comes of age, industrialization is taking its toll on human and animal hunters alike. The narrator trains his eye on man and, after offering a fabulist’s short history of human hunting, leaves us at the point on the tundra where appetite and willpower part ways, where every hunter must choose his or her direction, on through life or off into the realm of “eaten beasts.”
THE WHITE BEAR
Wild speed on the flight north over red twilights and hilly auroras and down a cloudbank and through a wall of storm and on among drift-hung peaks to my goal: a hole in a gray sweep of snow.
Inside, the first light has only now begun to quicken, and the mother bear is not about to budge. She sees no reason to paw through the breath-glazed dome, just lies stock-still by her cubs and stares up at the den ceiling, as if awaiting a seal at a breathing-hole or ominous commands from a looking glass.
Nothing ever happens, not while I’m hovering there, except that the bleak light increases, making the mother look more elderly and the cubs deathly pale.
The truth is, my heart would pound louder and louder, until it seemed best to make myself scarce, so I’d plunge north and down in a dwindling lightstorm and through drifts of darkness and out at last into a round moonlight with just enough room for one he-bear, hunched forward with his head on his paws.
And sure enough, the moment I arrive, an oblong shadow glides under the ice and looms up into the breathing-hole; now a paw lifts lightning-quick, claws dig into the head of a hooded seal, a maw gapes. The carcass slams onto the ice and flops around while the bear chomps up the head, all but smiling.
Of course the bear gets right down to business and starts to tear up the seal piece by piece and gobble it down. A fox yaps, yaps again closer, and here’s a raven, too, croaking right by me, and snow-white ivory gulls, screaming all around me, so close I could have wrung all their necks.
What a world of difference, to fall asleep counting a white bear’s seals, instead of hundreds and hundreds of sheep, though, to tell the truth, the first seal always sent me into a spasm of hunting lust on the level of growing pains, or the flu.
But, as the initial excitement wore off, it gradually became hypnotic and eventually downright soporific to watch the bear snatch seals and slash them into always the same segments and scarf them down, leaving nothing for the scavengers but bloody bones and the red ice, which they licked at conscientiously.
If this wasn’t enough to get to sleep on, or if habituation demanded more kills or more variety, the bear would simply change methods, and begin to slink low and ghost-like through puddles of thaw and ponds of ice, passing so lightly through the water, nothing showing but coal-black nostrils and hunt-keen eyes, that there was nary a ripple until he leapt, seized, and bit. Or he’d slip dry-footed from the rim of one ice floe to the next and pounce like a cross between a cat and a mink-trap on some sleeping bearded seal, or maybe a ribbon seal, which would meet the same swift death as the others.
Such hunting methods made for a slower tally but nonetheless were much more exciting, since the bear had to chase some of the light-sleepers and the ones with quick reflexes quite a distance, and now and then the seal would even escape into the water, which is just the way it goes.
In the end this kind of seal count would also bring me calm, and the last thing I’d see was the bear waddling off, belly broad and deep, happy and sated in the darkness.
On Sunday mornings when sanctimony lay over the land like glue with anxious flies in it, as the radio pastor purred to beat the damned cat, I’d simply take off north again, turning down through the clouds just at the moment when the bleak frozen rim was opening out, just before the light crested the ice mountains and flooded down in billows and ripples over ridges and snowplains and the bear’s old fields of slaughter.
For an instant the shadows leapt and roiled, but then the landscape began to sink back, as if about to cave in under the weight of the silence.—Or maybe it was the sky that was about to cave in, for now it began to crackle, as if ice needles were forming, as if the dome were freezing in hexagonal crystals, the way a calm sea skims over in a killing cold.
Then I’d begin to watch for a bright-furred outline to distinguish itself, to rear up and become an old three-metre-tall white bear, taking a stretch after lying low in his blizzard shelter since last Sunday. Yes of course he was hungry, his scanning eyes fierce, but there was simply no sign of life, nothing in sight but fresh snow.—A wilderness so uncharted, there was not even any such thing as directions, no orientation but the line of the sun, and the line of sight, and angles on the end of the world.
Nor was there any suspicious glint of a spyglass or gun-barrel bluing, no kind of track anywhere, no footprints doubling back slowly and carefully toward the bear like a countdown toward his final moment.
So he drops down on all fours and saunters out onto the ice to search, though not as if life depended on it; seems he’s never so hungry as to deny himself ample time to clear up any doubts concerning old seal-den vents, snuffling and stamping down into them though the scent must be all but dead.
He’d amble like that, making loops and slipknots, clear to the conclusion of the weekly mass—unless he found a lead to follow or a clearing in the pack ice, promising good hunting at last.
He would hardly notice the weather, or darkness or bright day, as his body grew ever more taut with hunger and his head filled with the ice contours that formed a map of his route. Constantly dangling before his eyes, off on the horizon, was a vision of blood, and he would not slow down until he saw it realized.
And then he’d become a whole new bear: his head would drop, his steps lighten, until he was a low-slinking sky- or snow-bear, soon vanishing completely, sound and all, not even the slightest signal carrying down into the sea.
Blubber-white outlines begin to spread across the map in his mind, turn blood-red, and fill in with meat and innards, and just as the bear head runs out of room for that seal, the real one pops up in the breathing hole. And as the life in the carcass dwindles, the image in the bear’s head gives way too, the same pieces tearing off the image as are torn off the creature, and for every shred that is eaten a corresponding shred sinks into that belly of experience which preserves everything in his diet in sun-clear brine.
This I pictured as capped by an ice dome which appetizingly mirrored his entire diet, magnifying and glossing things slightly, while in the background a calm stream flowed down from his slaughter fields, which were replete with glacial cataracts and ice castles, pack-ice leads and openings, ice fields in colors of the moon and northern lights, and so on.
But afterwards the bear would get caught up in his annual misadventure of stumbling onto spring, perhaps wandering off a landing bridge of pack ice onto some shore of death where the fast ice swiftly broke up and moved off to sea, leaving only a few stranded icebergs, harbor-ice paddies, and a smattering inside the skerries.
And above the bluffs on hill and dale the drab land would stir to life. But for a white bear verdant countryside is not a pleasant sight, not the land of plenty it is for most mammals and birds, but true famine country, more and more desolate in proportion to the warmth that southern visitors feel in watching the blossoming, so honeyed and pure to them that each close-up murder looks like one more puppies’ tussle. All so innocent and good-natured somehow: the ice-glazed marsh, the heathland, the mountains, and the lakes like a gigantic playground where the multitudes can eat each other in good clean fun during the six or so weeks available for the raising and fattening of young before winter.
But this bear, for one, is not on any medications that lend the world a rosy glow, no blissful stupor in his head; he sees only hunger in green grass, flowers, and the glimmer of sunshine on the coves. Knows full well that it’s pointless to try his luck at seals on the swim, that the same goes for walruses and small whales, and as for musk oxen and reindeer, they are almost as elusive as birds. Maybe in the end he too will be reduced to grazing, picking over tidal wrack and unripe berries, ptarmigan droppings and sheep turds.
Thank goodness those hard times are so brief; let’s hope the meager summer images pass before his eyes at a fairly rapid clip, streaming at every hand into autumn color and then the gray-brown that bodes a better brighter season, with bloody blossoms in the field.
One day a drizzling cold sets in, and then, sooner than expected, a delicious sleet storm breaks over him as he stands at the tideline and gazes out into the sea darkness.
The shore begins to skim over at last. One morning before dawn, the ice is more or less bear-safe clear out to sea.
And so he’s back on the blood path, back to leaving a steady trail of frosty ringed seal remains, once again crouching in perfect accord with the ice, in harmony with the murky sounds from the depths, as if now and again a huge heart thrummed, and there were dreadful lungs down there, filling and emptying in a similar rhythm.
Now the storms wail over him, endless variations on the white guise of death. Between the storms come lulls composed of all kinds of slivered glass and amplified moons and stars and electrical light shows in such a green-blowing blue that the ice seems to roll like swell on the open sea.
Though nothing really unsettles these realms; they only tremble slightly when a fissure opens, as the bear trembles when the walrus makes that steel-drum noise, or when the bearded seals shriek calamitously out of the depths.
Maybe at length he runs across a meandering current that never freezes, that fills with flickering fish tails as the shoals run, herring and sea char, salmon and capelin, or darkens with polar cod and north-ranging flatfishes. And there would be seals and birds all over the place of course, narwhals and other small whales, and walruses slurping off the shellfish beds.
What seemed strangest to me in the books I read was that no hunting grounds were so rich that the white bear would not sooner or later tear himself away from them and head off in the direction of stark want.
According to these books, people encountered the bear all around the polar circle, and this was what gave me the idea that it wasn’t just seals that drew the bear on through one stinging white-out after another and out into suncolors white, green, and blue, even black in ancient floes, through wall-wet fogs and out across moonbleak snowdust under a blue eiderdown star.—No, probably the bear’s surroundings coursed insignificantly through his mind, running together like a river into a mouth which was also its source, full circle indeed, as he chased the bloodset on the western horizon, clear around the North Pole each year.
I also ran across the old belief that some place out in the wilderness there stood a great snowhouse where the dead animals lived. In it were snow and ice and land and water and sky and everything one world needed. Which proved that in the uncharted wilderness there had to be at least two directions, forward toward life and back toward death.
Shortly after that I learned somehow that northern peoples always became aware of death soon after it turned its sights on them; suddenly they would discern that a white shadow was tracking them, or they would see a snow-colored walker in the squall up ahead.—That death needed no scythe, just sat down beside someone in the new-fallen snow and sat as long as was needed, or waited inside the drift while the lost ones burrowed in face-first.
There were also stories of tasty bear kills and fresh boiled meat in great big kettles, but the story that was most vivid to me emerged from the newspaper one spring day.
It was, as I recall, the only thing on the front page, and I could reconstruct the whole chain of events in living color because I personally had laid eyes on this farm where, yesterday morning, the farmer woke up to bleats of terror and saw on his homefield not a fox but a bear chasing his ewes. Well, when one ewe strayed down into a ditch and the bear went after it, the farmer fetched the big rifle and shot the bear at close range.
Sadly, this bear displayed no outward signs of his powers; there were no indications of dread beast no matter how I squinted at his head. He lay on his side in a position curiously like that of a sunbathing cat, or maybe he looked more like a bleached sloth, because his hide was way too big for him. He’d been starving, in other words, and all the ravenous ferocity had drained from his expression. A hang-dog look on his death day.
Nonetheless he had bashed in the ewe’s trunk quite impressively and neatly bitten off her head; understandably he hadn’t felt like chewing up the horns.
There sat the farmer on an inside page, self-important, one hand holding his rifle at a martial angle and the other spreading the bear’s jaws.—The bear was much more powerful-looking that way, though I couldn’t really say he was baring his fangs. In fact he could have used a few more teeth, by my lights.
A long wait ensued for the next bear visit. Time and again the meteorologists all but promised shore-bound drift ice, and, for this reason, it did not happen; it was long after my days of great interest in the white bear that another one was killed in this country.
This next bear was not in any condition to do glorious deeds either, as a certain boat had rammed him on the swim, far south of the pack ice between Greenland and the West Fjords.
There was no decent rifle on board. Actually, in retrospect, no one knew why they hadn’t just let him continue his ill-starred journey, since killing such an animal was no longer regarded as heroic and hadn’t been for quite some time; in fact it wasn’t only the Greens any more who looked askant at such kills, and the crew stood little chance of turning it into cash.—Maybe thoughtlessness simply ruled the day, as it so often has with Icelanders and nature.
In any case, they managed to get a sling around him and haul him up above the gunwale. Then they were of two minds about how to proceed.
Someone got them out of the impasse by venturing near the paws and getting a noose around the neck. But a bear’s neck is well-muscled, and the bear twitched for a long time above the deck, with the newly brown and brassy surge from the Arctic Sea in the background, before it was safe to let him down.
That’s how that went. It drew mixed reactions, since the bear had slipped down among the ranks of dread beasts but had yet not been classed among the sacrificial lambs for whom the television solicits our biannual pity. And of course science had by then denuded him of the many veils of secrecy that had once adorned him and indeed every other alluring and dangerous wild animal that once roamed the world of the mind.
As old age creeps up on industrialization, more and more toxins are said to collect in the bear via the seal, building up in the worry troves of his researchers. Just recently the researchers arrived at the calculation that this beast that has sauntered around the ice for conceivably two hundred fifty thousand years has about a century left, as estrogens make more and more cubs sterile and hermaphroditic.
It conjures up a movie sequence of him waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze, sitting out the wait in a specially constructed bear wing adjacent to housing for Inuit vagrants who, like the bear, have been picked up off the streets of Churchill. Next we get to see a bear that was actually allowed to go on working over the landfill for the sake of the tourist trekkers, but this bear is almost as lethargic as the first, and when darkness falls he lies down to sleep by the bulldozer bucket.
And then the third sequence begins, of a bear that just turns in circles in the cone of a helicopter spotlight, upright and waving his paws.
Seemed like a real Disney-style bear to most of the people in the chopper, but one old hunter didn’t crack a smile, because it struck him that this looked like what the elders took as signs that the bear was beset by demons, surrounded by such a throng of conjurations, maybe, that he could not see any way out.
Then the helicopter lost ground to the snowsquall, and it was a while before the light again passed over where the bear stood, head low, like a freshly scolded child.
The old hunter didn’t think that was laughable, either, because that was exactly the way the elders said the bear carried himself when he had begun to look toward his ancestors, when all that was left him was to turn around and head in the direction of the great snowhouse of eaten beasts.
copyright Sigfús Bjartmarsson 1998
translation copyright Sarah M. Brownsberger 2007
NOTE: RAPTORHOOD is out of print. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to read more, or to inquire about republishing this timely and unique perspective on hunger, ferocity, and environmental change.