Ed. note: We are pleased to publish the first three pages of David Arnason’s new novel, Baldur’s Song.
I’ve heard him read this selection twice now, once at the Aspire Theatre where the audience was made up of many of his family. The room rocked with laughter as people recognized themselves. David is a talented reader so his reading adds much to the story, but the words on the page will, I hope, bring you the same delight I’ve had when I’ve heard them read.
David has had, is still having, a stellar career. He’s been a writer, editor, publisher, academic, mentor, administrator and that probably leaves out some things. His publications are many. He is part of the group who have made Gimli, Manitoba a recognized location on the literary landscape of Canada.
She shouldn’t have done it. She shouldn’t have lain with him there in the sweet meadow, the sun low in the sky, the music still ringing in her ears. So what if he had played on the violin while everyone danced, so what if he sang like angel? She was only seventeen and he was the father of five children, so what if her blood had flooded her body like a disease, she should have said no, I can find my own way home, thank you. She should have said I am sorry, sir, what you ask is impossible. The nineteenth century had tipped on its fulcrum and they were sliding towards a new century, but there was still plenty of time. She could have said no.
But she didn’t. It’s a curse on the whole family. We can’t say no. When somebody invites us to pleasure, we forget what we were doing, we forget all our plans, and we’re thrashing in the bedclothes or crushing the flowers in the sweet meadows. There was plenty of warning. The gulls were crying out danger, the terns were calling beware, beware. The heat of the blood is no excuse, but we make it our excuse again and again.
And that’s what Thorunn did in the Icelandic dawn when the century was gathering itself for disaster. She forgot she could recite whole sections of the Bible, that her father was the priest at Tjorn, that her mother had warned against such a moment. So this is love, she thought, and she slipped out of her dress as if it had no buttons, as if it had been designed to be thrown carelessly on the grass. Even the starlings were upset. They flew out over the fjord so that they would not have to watch, they flew right past the swans nesting near the mouth of the river, they flew north in the direction of the Arctic Circle, which hovered just on the edge of the horizon.
Ah, but when it was over she was sorry, you want to say, she had learned her lesson, but it was nothing of the sort. It’s a curse on the whole family, this inability to feel proper guilt, to learn from our mistakes. We should be wearing sackcloth and ashes, some of us should learn how to pray properly, somebody should ask for forgiveness. But we don’t. At least Thorunn didn’t. She danced home as happily as if she had won first prize in the confirmation class.
And she did it again. The very next night. She slipped out of doors when she should have been sleeping and lay with Arngimur again, just beyond the church in plain view of her father’s bedroom, in plain view of her own grandmother’s grave. And the next day, when she should have stayed in her room and begged the Lord’s forgiveness, she told her sister everything, she told Petrina Soffia who was only fifteen how love happens, the mechanics of the things. She said it all aloud in the barn when they were feeding the new calf, when anyone might have been listening.
It’s a curse on the whole family. We can’t keep anything to ourselves. We have to blab it all out, to tell each other things that should never be spoken aloud. We have no secrets, none of us, and no shame. Don’t tell us anything, we will tell everyone else, we don’t even whisper. You may as well publish your secret in the newspaper as tell it to us.
And so by the end of the week everyone in the valley knew. Thorunn was so happy about being in love and so amazed with the simple dynamics of lovemaking she told everything to Petrina Soffia. And Petrina was so amazed at her sister’s discovery that she told Nanna and Inga, and even their little brother, Bjorn, who was only five years old. And Nanna told Disa and Inga told Margaret, and Bjorn who didn’t understand asked Thorunn, who kissed him and said not to worry, everything would be fine.
That’s another problem. We all believe that everything can be cured with kisses. There’s no use telling us kisses are part of the problem that kisses might be the whole problem. We kiss each other when we meet and we kiss each other when we part, and we sometimes kiss perfect strangers. I’ll tell you more about that later.
And of course everybody in the valley knew in no time. This is a valley that can’t keep secrets. Secrets slide down the slopes of the mountains. Elves whisper the secrets to the cattle. The wind from the fjord blows nobody any good.
So by the time that Arngrimur’s wife found out, Thorunn’s belly had begun to swell. The swans on the pond kept their dignity. They nodded their heads and looked at their reflections in the water. The glacier in the south end of the valley moved one more notch toward the fjord. Half the people in the valley packed their bags and moved to America. Arngimur bowed his head like a swan and stayed in his house.
Thorunn looked at her reflection in the water and she liked what she saw, the rounding of her belly. She was without shame. When Argrimur walked by on the road she waved to him, and she laughed a laugh that haunted him for nine years. He woke in the night in his bed, and the laugh rattled him so he couldn’t sleep, and he had to get up in the dark and breathe deeply one hundred times before he could sleep again. For nine whole years.
Did I tell you that we’re all plagued by ghosts? Every last one of us, even here in America. It’s like this. There were so many ghosts in the valley, there wasn’t room for them. And so many people left for America, there was nobody left for the ghosts, so they went to America too, though not until 1883.