WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS, An excerpt from a travel essay
A text by the 2017 creative non-fiction Sozopol Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant KATE ANGUS
The sun doesn't set in the summer there so we played cards for hours in the ceaseless twilight; during the daytime, we hiked an old Viking trail. We carried our backpacks through the wilderness and set up camp each night by rivers and waterfalls. We found a fragment of whale bone on the seashore, curved and large as a giant's tooth. It was porous, but as heavy as the stones surrounding it. We foraged for horsetail reeds and rose root to make a tea Icelandic legend claims brings prophetic dreams – we wanted to learn our futures as we slept in the skin-thin tents perched precariously atop moss and lava rock. Sometimes some of us would satellite away from main camp to lie down side by side in mossy hollows and share chocolate bars and smuggled whiskey. One woman wove a crown of seaweed she wore every day; another woman fell in a river and watched her hat sail gaily away towards the Arctic Ocean. The man none of us liked capsized his kayak in the fjord so we rowed to shore pulling him as the vessel filled with water and sank behind us.
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 surprisingly 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 Orkneys, 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 always worry you might hurt people, you give up, you always ask for permission. Why don't you ever fight for things?
KATE ANGUS is the author of the poetry collection So Late to the Party (Negative Capability Press, 2016). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic online, The Washington Post, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014 and have been featured on the website for the Academy of American Poets. She is also the founding editor of Augury Books and the Creative Writing Advisor, as well as Chair of the Advisory Board, for the Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities at Sarah Lawrence College.
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