I was visiting Valdi Vigfusson in the nursing home in Gimli, Manitoba, and mentioned that I was reading one of Laxness’s novels. “I saw him once,” he said. “He came to give a reading.”
Valdi came from a farm in the Interlake of Manitoba. The area was settled by Icelandic immigrants around the turn of the century. His parent’s farm was on marginal land so life was hard scrabble for them and since he’d been an only child and had inherited their farm, life was hardscrabble for him, too. In other areas, the land was good and many of the farmers had prospered, at least much more than those who had stayed in the swamps around Lake Winnipeg or among the gravel ridges.
Although the settlers were all related by blood or marriage, there was quite a bit of rivalry and not a little resentment toward those who were doing better than others. When Valdi told me stories about the communities, I always had to take that into account. Many of his stories seemed impossible. Men walking all night on legs frozen solid. Men, after having their legs amputated, clearing their land on their knees. Sturgeon so big their heads were at the bow of a skiff and the tail at the stern. However, time and again, my research confirmed what he said.
Valdi’s hand shook as he took the cup of coffee I’d brought him. He used his left hand to steady his right wrist. He’d sold his parent’s farm and bought one on land along the Icelandic River. The Icelandic River, originally called the White Mud river, ran all the way from west through the municipality of Bifrost to Lake Winnipeg. At one time, Valdi had been a big, strapping man, broad shouldered from a life-time of heavy work, his skin darkened by sun and wind. Now, he sat hunched in his wheelchair. His hair had turned grey and his skin was yellow. “Kidney’s are going,” he said.
“Laxness, in the Interlake?” I said skeptically. From time to time, I’d heard rumours of Laxness coming to the Interlake, but when I’d tried to find out any details of his visit, I me with silence. The closest I got to something specific was that Laxness had stayed for a time in my home town of Gimli. But who he stayed with, how long he stayed, what he did was unknown or, at least, not to be shared.
Valdi sipped his coffee, then put the cup down. The ripples on the top of the cup went over the rim. I pulled a Kleenex out of a box and mopped up the coffee. “Lousy way to die,” he said. “I shoulda had a heart attack while I was threshing.”
“Laxness?” I prompted him.
“I dunno if I should say anything.” He took hold of his right wrist and lifted up the cup. I wanted to suggest that he use a straw but knowing him that would be the end of the visit. He’d jerk his thumb at the door. I’d be persona non grata for a week. He managed to get the cup down without spilling any coffee on himself or the table. “There was a sort of understanding. Nothing formal. No taking of oaths or anything. You just knew you weren’t to talk about it.”
“It was a long time ago,” I said.
He sighed. We both knew that there were a lot of secrets that went to the grave unspoken. I have my own but those are personal failures, mistakes, misunderstandings. This was a public event that included a writer who would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Besides, Valdi loved to talk. He was happiest when he had an audience.
I thought about the town where I’d been told the event that no one talked about was supposed to have happened. It was a prosperous farming community. A main street lined with stores, a hotel, nicer houses than a lot of the surrounding communities had. It had prospered while other communities had faded away. I remembered being there for an athletic day. Most of the school had gone there to participate. However, a visit by Laxness would have to have been a couple of decades earlier, when the town was less formed, more isolated, more Icelandic. I was particularly interested in this possible story about Laxness coming to the wilderness of Manitoba because I’d been to Iceland, visited his home after his death, spent an afternoon with his widow, sat at his desk, looked out his window at the landscape that spread out before him as he wrote his amazing books. I’d asked her for details about his visit and while she talked freely about his time Hollywood, she claimed to know nothing about his trip north.
Sometimes, silence is the best response to uncertainty. It allows the owner of a secret to unlock the door from inside, to peek out, to see if there is anything threatening. I sat and drank my coffee and studied the half-dozen Icelandic books on Valdi’s bedside table.
“I need a smoke,” he said.
I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He knew I didn’t approve of his smoking.
“My lungs will still be working when my kidneys quit,” he said.
I pushed his wheelchair to the door, punched in the numbers on the lock, then wheeled him through the door and parked him beside a bench where the smokers sat even in the coldest weather. There was a rusted coffee can for discarded butts.
Valdi fumbled a package of cigarettes and a matchbook folder out of his pocket. By pressing the cigarette package onto his lap with his left hand, he managed to get a cigarette out. His hand vibrated as he got the cigarette to his lips. He moved it over to one side with his tongue. He kept his lips nearly closed when he said, “I can’t light a match.”
I picked up the matches, pulled one loose and held the flame to his cigarette. He sucked in the smoke, then breathed it out.
“Laxness,” I said.
He looked away, past the right side of my head. I thought he was dismissing my question but, instead, he was remembering. It was too hard for him to take the cigarette out of his mouth so he kept it firmly in the corner of the left side. It waved up and down as he talked.
I was surprised that Laxness would go to the trouble of making the trip to Manitoba. In Iceland the emigrants had been called traitors, weaklings, cowards who ran away because times were hard. They even taught that in the schools.
“All right but you can’t mention the name of the town and you can’t tell anyone until I’ve been dead for ten years,” Valdi said. He butted out his cigarette. “The hall was full. People had to stand. I was just a kid. I went there with my parents.”
I imagined that country hall with its wooden benches, men and women dressed in their best, packed together, the overflow standing along the walls. Farmers in their good dark jackets and pants, their wives in long dresses.
Laxness was fifteen minutes late. The road was Manitoba clay with a sprinkling of gravel. It had been raining off and on for days and the roads were deeply rutted. To get from one town to another, you put your car wheels into the ruts and followed them just like they were a set of railway tracks.
Laxness followed his driver into the room. He was rather nattily dressed, with a vest and bow tie. The audience had been talking about the rain and flooding and whether the cattle were going to suffer from hoof rot. Hoof rot was on everyone’s mind. The hall fell silent as Laxness came in. He went straight to the stage. There was the sound of shuffling as people took their seats.
There was a brief introduction by the driver, then Laxness started to read from his story, “New Iceland”. It wasn’t a good choice. There were still bitter feelings over the emigration, times had been hard, a lot of people had died on the trip over and in New Iceland. Laxness’s short story was about how the emigrants had failed, how they were going to keep failing and how they should have stayed in Iceland, how the men had disgraced themselves by allowing their wives go out to work as domestics. The audience already had heard rumours about the story. Laxness never got to the end of it. The local farmers had overcome huge obstacles, made tremendous sacrifices and many of them already had successful farms. In Iceland, as indentured servants working for some wealthy farmer or as tenant farmers, they’d have had nothing and would have been living in hovels made with rock and turf. The injustice of the accusations in the story were infuriating. Even Valdi’s parent’s hardscrabble farm was better than anything they would have had in Iceland.
Three quarters of the way through, a farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers.” Pandemonium broke out. People rushed for the door. People climbing over the benches knocked them over. On one of the wagons there was a metal tub full of tar and some bags of chicken feathers. People were jammed in the door. A few men, unable to get outside, after milling about for a few moments, turned and charged the stage.
Before he’d started reading, Laxness had checked the back door to be sure it was unlocked. He’d had unappreciative audiences before. When the farmer jumped up and yelled, “Get the tar and feathers,” Laxness bolted for the door, his driver behind him. Because of the rain, the door had swollen and it jammed. However, they both got out and his driver held the door shut. Their car was parked at the front of the hall. It was a strategic mistake. It would have been better to have parked at the back with the car pointed to the road but Laxness had wanted to make a grand entrance. Laxness sloshed his way across the yard to the road that led out of town. It was pitch black, rain was pouring down. Lightning lit up the sky.
The farmers at the back door, frustrated at being unable to get it open, turned and ran to the front door just as the tub of tar and the sacks of feathers were being brought in. They collided with the group coming in. The tub went flying, the tar rose up in a black wave, drenching everyone in its path. Trying to avoid the tar, people tripped over the benches. Others slipped in the tar. Chicken feathers filled the air. Some women who were knocked over started screaming as they lay on the floor. Those inside were yelling stop, stop but it did no good. The crowd coming in the front door kept forcing its way in, pushing people backwards so more tripped over the benches and fell onto the tar.
“He’s outside,” one of the men who had been on the stage shouted and the crowd turned back toward the front door and, slipping and sliding in the tar, staggered and tripped down the front steps. A bolt of lightning revealed Laxness slogging down the mud road. “He’s there,” someone shouted but the next moment all was darkness.
A group of men waded through the water and mud and started along the road. Another bolt of lightning showed them Laxness struggling through the wet clay. Running was impossible. Manitoba clay clung to everything. Feet came up with a sucking sound. Men tripped in the ruts and fell and had a devil of a time to get up. Some farmers had brought torches. They lit them and joined the others on the road. A few had taken pitchforks from their wagons.
“Put those down,” Gisur from Geyser yelled. “You’ll kill somebody.”
It was true. The men with the pitchforks were waving them wildly as they tried to keep their balance
There’d been enough time for the farmers to gather. With the aid of the torches that burned for a while in spite of the rain, they started out as a group. Lightening revealed Laxness well ahead of them but not so far that they couldn’t catch him. However, with the tar spread over the floor of the hall and over a good many of the audience and the women who’d rolled in the tar then been covered with the feathers, what good catching him would do was unclear. Still, the blood lust of the hunt was up.
The race was in slow motion. The clay clung to farmer’s feet until the pursuers were lifting large, heavy clumps of mud. They sank up to their ankles and when they pulled their feet up, their shoes stayed behind. Boots remained in place so that the owners walked out of them, then sank into the mud in their sock feet. Instead of making progress, more and more of the pursuers were demanding that those with torches come and help them find their shoes. Still, the pursuit continued. There were lightning bolts and thunder overhead. With each bolt of lightning, they could see Laxness and the fact that he wasn’t moving any faster than they were. Sometimes, he had to put both hands under a leg to pull his foot out of the mud. Then the lightning stopped for a bit. When another bolt struck, Laxness was nowhere to be seen. The crowd surged forward, first shoeless, then sockless as the mud first took shoes, then socks. The clay didn’t stick as much to bare feet so those with one shoe and sock lost took the others off. Those with torches still lit, led the way.
Laxness, for his part, had reached the bridge at the edge of town. His shoes had been tightly laced so he still had them but they would never be the same. He was exhausted from lifting feet three times their normal size. When he came to the bridge, he slid down the embankment of the Icelandic River, then crawled along until he was well under the bridge. Overhead, he heard the farmers yelling and cursing. There had been the danger that someone might look under the bridge but, by then, all the torches had been doused by the rain.
Laxness lay there, his heart pounding, his breath rasping in his chest, waiting until he was certain that all his pursuers had left. He could hear their departing vehicles crossing the bridge. Then he crawled back onto the bank and up to the road. In an attempt to get the mud off, he first stood under a small waterfall where a ditch emptied into the river.
When he got back to the car, his driver was waiting for him. Laxness opened the back door and threw himself inside.
“Would you like some coffee?” the driver asked.
There was supposed to have been a reception. The ladies had brought food. In the confusion, in despair over tar on their dresses, on their faces, in their hair, they left their food behind. The driver, who was a big man with a good appetite, all through the pursuit, had been in the hall, working his way through the sandwiches, the vinarterta, the klienar, the rullupylsa on brown bread, the butter tarts. He’d been washing it down with excellent coffee from a large urn.
He went into the hall, piled two plates with sandwiches and desserts. He then went back for the urn and two cups. He and Laxness sat there in the car, eating the sandwiches and desserts and drinking the coffee. Laxness tried not to drip on his sandwiches.
“The local ladies are known to be good cooks,” the driver said as he finished off his sixth piece of vinarterta. Then he started the car and drove them back the way they had come. In spite of all that had happened, Laxness still had his bow tie.
For three days, Laxness recuperated in Gimli. “It was a good story,” he said to his host over breakfast the first morning, “but a hard audience.”