"Children in Reindeer Woods" by Kristin Ómarsdóttir [Icelandic Literature]
We’re bringing Lytton Smith’s translation of Children in Reindeer Woods next April, which is a ways off, I know, but it still seems like the perfect time to introduce this strange, haunting novel.
This novel takes place at a “temporary home for children” called Children in Reindeer Woods, where eleven-year-old Billie lives. The book opens with an intense clash of styles, as a very pastoral description is uprooted by the sudden arrival of a group of paratroopers who kill everyone—except for Billie. Rafael, one of the soldiers, then turns on his compatriots, kills them, and decides to get out of the war and become a farmer with Billie.
What war is this? It’s very unclear. Initially it might seem like WWII (which doesn’t make a great deal of sense), but people use cell phones, a nun passes through on her way to buy a computer, etc. This sort of murkiness adds to the fable-like quality of the novel.
Kristin Ómarsdóttir is the author of several books of poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. She received Gríman, the Icelandic playwright award, in 2005 fo the play Tell Me Everything.
Here’s an excerpt from Children in Reindeer Woods, her first book to be published in English translation.
vii. Rafael shouldered the weapon and took the crockery into the kitchen. Then he aimed the gun at the girl. “You can play for an hour before you go to bed. You’ll play here.”
With the toe of his army boot, he gestured to an empty spot on the living room floor. Billie got up from the table, pulled down the hem of her dress, and curtsied.
“Are you tall for your age?” he asked.
Tall like my father was, she was about to say, but stopped her motormouth dead.
“You said you were . . . eleven years old.” Billie nodded her head. “Then you’re tall for your age. Do you still play or not?”
“How does the daughter of the house spend her time?”
“I’m not the daughter of the house.”
“How does a bright young thing spend her time?”
“With Barbie dolls,” replied Billie, bowing because she felt she was replying to a king and kings like being replied to with bows at the end of sentences. “I am not a precocious child. I am late-developing, almost retarded, though I am not dyslexic. I
believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and the earth.”
Billie bowed. Rafael smiled without effort, and just as effortlessly the smile vanished from his face. His ordinary facial expression was in keeping with his physical strength and his deliberate movements.
“Where are the Barbie dolls?” he asked inquisitively. She pointed to the red plastic box on the bookshelf. He rummaged around in the box. “You know what? It was a pleasure to dine with you.”
That’s how a fully-grown man talks to a fully-grown woman, not to a girl, little or big. She stretched her back. Perhaps she’d gotten big. “The pleasure was all mine,” she replied, and curtsied.
“Play,” he commanded, setting the red box on the floor. Billie sat down. She had heard offhand comments that eleven-year-old girls were too big for Barbie. Perhaps she was retarded. Her father and mother had said, they were always saying, the two of them together and each of them separately:
Billie dear, don’t constrain your inner child.
Be a child as long as you want, even if you become the object of ridicule.
What does object of ridicule mean, Mom and Dad, what does object of ridicule mean?
When you get laughed at.
Why will I get laughed at, why will I get laughed at, Mom and Dad?
We don’t know you will get laughed at, but if, if, you get laughed at, you have our word that you can be the way you want to be, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Other people’s laughter is not a death sentence. You can’t let others change your habits.
If she asked them whether she was retarded, they laughed like baboons. And so she took note of this, she would learn the truth for herself later. When she got bigger she would go to an institution, perhaps, and get the confirmation she currently lacked. The phone rang. Rafael, who was standing at the front door holding the cat, breathing in the evening breeze and the warm country air, turned in a half-circle and stared at the telephone. It was like he hadn’t seen a phone before. Like it made a difference to stare at it. You have to answer it. Then he looked at Billie. Back at the phone. He let the cat fall from his arms and went towards the machine, which stood on a pillar in the hall. It might be Soffia. She usually rang about that time, after dinner. The phone’s ringer fell silent. The army boots continued past the girl, and the man sat down in the rocking chair.
“Does the phone ring much?” he asked, massaging his forehead.
“It sometimes rings in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Not often.”
“Someone or other.”
“Do you know any names?
She shrugged her shoulders; she couldn’t possibly say, my Mom. Perhaps the man would be sorry to hear her mom wasn’t dead. She dressed the Barbie dolls in new clothes, she combed their hair. The phone rang again. She acted as though the machine didn’t exist. The phone went dead. Rafael’s eyes closed.
The cat slunk slowly across the f loor, nuzzled at the rocking chair and the army boots, then jumped up onto the soldier’s lap. With his eyes still closed, he made room for the animal and put a hand on its fur. The other hand grasped the weapon, which rested on his chest like a bow and violin on a sleeping fiddle player’s chest. While he slept, because he snored, the playing girl took charge, and the dolls began to speak, competing to speak as though they had eaten lots of eggs, talking in soft voices:
viii. Ragga: I’ve gotten into even more trouble because I’m pregnant and going to have a child. I’ll leave it on the doorstep of some rich folk. I wouldn’t let anyone suffer my poverty and hardship.
Sara: I’ll take the child, dear Ragga; I cannot have children because in truth I have metalbelly.
Ragga: What is metalbelly, Sara babe?
Sara: Ugh, let’s not talk about it at this elegant party. Thank you for coming, my darling angel.
Ragga: Are you going to see Gugga? Teddy cut off her hair and sold it.
Sara: Let’s go and steal something from Teddy. Quick.
Ragga: Good idea! I likewise am dead tired of this party. It’s much more entertaining to go and play outside.
Sara: I had to host this party, my darling cinnamon bun, so no one would think that I’m retarded. Sara whispers to Ragga: I am, you see, retarded.
Ragga: Me too. Don’t tell anyone. Come and steal something from Teddy, Guggalugga’s husband.
They arrive at bald Guggalugga’s home.
Ragga: Guggalugga, you’re quite the sight! You’re bald.
A bald Barbie doll is added to the group.
Gugga: Don’t say that, Ragga, please, be nice to me.
Ragga: It’s best to speak the truth my angel, my raisin bun, I hope you’re not ill, dear Gugga. Where is that guy? Where’s that jerk of a guy?
The new Barbie doll, a boy-doll, who has been added to the crowd: I’m good. I’m good. As the saying goes: everything’s hay in hard times. I’m good. God bless us, God bless us all. I’ve sinned and now I repent. All the worst things humankind has
done had gathered inside me. I repented. God bless us, my child. Everything’s hay—
Sara and Ragga beat Teddy to pieces.
Gugga: Girls, be nice to Teddy. It’s not like you think, my hair will grow back.
Ragga: It won’t grow back, you donkey, you’re a doll.
They stop beating Teddy, who cries like an old crone.
Gugga: Girls, listen, please. Teddy’s momma ordered him to steal my hair because she said she would disinherit him if he didn’t and she gave him a lot of money for the hair. We were starving. Our stomachs howled. We would have died of hunger.
Didn’t you notice that we were beginning to lose weight?
Ragga: Is it better to be rich and bald?
Ragga punches Teddy.
Gugga: You’re one to speak, Ragga, pregnant and about to sell some rich people your child.
Ragga: I’m not going to sell it. I’m giving it away. That’s quite different. My offspring won’t be bought and sold like your hair.
Sara: I shall give Gugga my hair. I’m giving Guggalugga my hair.
“Wait a moment, I need to fetch the scissors,” said Billie, standing up.