For twenty-five days I live in a northern house. I have the place to myself. I am out in a nowhere. The house is thirty kilometers from the nearest town; outside is a valley, and around the valley, long, narrow mountains. Beyond my window, down in the fields, is a herd of Icelandic ponies. I see their small shapes moving in the low and angled light.
The only mouths breathing on my icy hands for twenty-five days: my own mouth, the mouths of the ponies.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” says my brother from the grainy computer screen.
“Sure,” I say. But I do not trust the horses. I believe them keen to bite me. They stand and chew. They get skittish and nip one another if I get too close.
No one is ever around and here is the thing I do, which you would do, too: I sing very badly as loud as I can. I can show you the world. And so on.
The house in Eastern Iceland. The flagpole’s metallic ring. When I cross the wide fields, I crunch frozen hay underfoot. Across the frozen hay is a glacial lake, half-iced, washing its rounded stones. I stand in a shallow valley, cradled by low mountains.
I try to climb one. I get as far up as I can before dark. I climb over a ridge of stone and I’m not at the peak. I climb over tall ridge after ridge and each time, when I get to the top, gasping with scraped and icy hands, there’s more mountain. I keep going and I think, one more. Then, one more. I am thinking that if I fall and break my ankle, no one will come looking for me. I don’t have a phone, or water. I think one more and then:
I don’t get to the top but I do get to a long snow-covered plateau after pulling myself up a sheer bit of rock. I see the tracks of reindeer. The view is: much more mountain. Wide valley. Great bending bowl of shadow. The sun is always near the horizon. It is January and the days are all short, every single one.
I went there wanting to be alone. I’d left behind a bad year in New Orleans—turning myself in at the Orleans Parish Prison, the money gone, the car gone. I wanted quiet. Now I wake up with no one to talk to.
I wake alone in the northern house where nothing is expected of me. I can do what I like. I can walk around without pants. I can be unshowered. I can eat a head of raw garlic, if I like.
No one is around to tell me to smile, pretty girl. In Istanbul, men stared at me when I walked alone; they pulled their cars alongside me and opened their doors to invite me in. They touched me on the bus. Once, walking home, a man wearing pink and blue gloves spit on me in the clean bright day.
In the frozen land, now, I wear a man’s secondhand coat. I hunch up ugly inside of it. I put my hands in the pockets where someone else’s hands used to be. Now I am safe from strange men, but nobody praises me. I need this terrible praise and I do not want to need this terrible, terrible praise.
I spend my days going back and forth from my desk to the kitchen. Make the coffee. Eat a hardboiled egg. Spread butter on dried fish. Write for a long time, until I forget myself.
I am in this northern house as a writer-in-residence. I was invited to continue or renew the legacy of a long-dead Danish male writer, whose book I read while I lie upside-down, my legs on the couch, my back on the floor.
He writes, “They must not be allowed to perish there from hunger and cold merely because none would take the trouble or the risk to seek them out and bring them home.”
I am 24. I am living in Istanbul. I want to do something important but sometimes I wake up afraid. That arrest in Orleans, my third. Hiding from the police in the Uptown house. Maybe everybody else has one thing that they can be proud of. Maybe I am like one of those babies born with parts missing, born without a liver, born with half a lung.
Before I left, I bought a bottle of duty-free whiskey in a Turkish airport. Before I left I poured it into a wax paper cup of flat Pepsi and drank it with a straw. I asked a custodian woman, in poor Turkish, if there was a smoking section and she shook her head, gestured for me to follow, and ushered me into the bathroom where she explained through winks and short Turkish and a wry smile that I should wait until the other women left. She and I waited. We looked in the mirror. She pinned and re-pinned her headscarf. She touched my shoulder.
In the northern house where I sleep alone I sleep with my clothes on. I don’t have to. But undressed, I feel exposed. What could touch me, or I am too free this way. A feeling like my skin will detach and float right off my body, loose-ballooned, goodbye!
Every day is the same and this pattern makes good, clear, icy circles in my brain. I drink the coffee. I sit at the desk and write, delete some sentences. I sit on the couch and read for a long time. I sit at the desk and write 2,000 words about a man who is crushed to death by reindeer. Those sharp hooves. The steaming breath. I look at the sinister horses and I go outside before it gets dark, and it gets dark so early. And every day I walk further down the empty road to a new place. And then I come home and shake off the cold.
Sometimes I make a very nice dinner for my only self. I make salad, I bake fish, I have a small glass of wine.
Other times I eat a bowl of popcorn and drink hot chocolate with cognac in it and this is dinner, too.
I talk to someone in a different time zone and I am saying don’t let me be lonely but really I say, “I wish you could be here, you would love this.” I hear the wind howl and howl and screech. I look for the Northern lights, but I never see them.
Sometimes, during my time outside, I misremember half-learned poems. I know you are reading this poem, alone, something something an office, under the light of the solitary lamp. You raise your hand to block the light, as though you were the room encased in glass with every speck of dust illuminated. A girl has come, to share my room in the house not right in the head, a girl mad as birds, bolting the door of the night her arm her plume, deludes the heaven-proof house with maddening stars—dilutes the heaven-crazed stars with rendering proof—she roots the heavenly host with maddening crowds—
Isolated, unspeaking, sensation becomes the most important pursuit. I am surrounded by an enormous blank. I’m after stimulation, and I give my neck chills with blurs of poems.
The precise structure of the poetry, like the actual substance of the surrounding rocky land, becomes less important. Their actual material is subsumed by the reaction they catalyze. Most crucial is not the exactness of the verse, nor the substance of the icy hill, but the wonder that they achieve—especially here, where they are all I have to react to.
When I sat in the Orleans Parish courthouse, passed by sharp-suited lawyers, I watched the pigeons fly in the main hall. They came in through the massive old windows, tilted open to let some of the gulf heat out, and they rested up there by the ceiling. A young woman my age, clean-faced, who could’ve been my friend, negotiates my sentence with my lawyer, not looking at me. The poems are the courthouse birds that keep me looking up, at the breezy cavern of illuminated dust, hanging above all our heads.
Sometimes, during my time outside, when I am climbing a great hill sweaty and freezing and hungry and alone, I am so happy I think it can’t be true. I hike for hours up to Hengifoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. It is winter and no one else goes this way. I cross a valley, step over frozen streams and proceed with a crushing noise into knee-deep snow. I find the crusted footsteps of one other. I stand by the massive waterfall which thunders down onto a mound of ice and snow-blue and brown, throwing off hard drops of stinging water. The roar drowns out everything. This is exactly where I want to be. What sort of victory. I did this alone, I think.
Things I say out loud in the snow which no one will hear: “I did this alone.”
Things I say out loud in the streets to nobody in the crowded city where they do not speak my language: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t–” Instructions for keeping the fear down.
My own failure to survive back in Louisiana, to earn a living, to escape unarrested, was compounded, in Istanbul, by my inability to do the simplest things—to find a pharmacy, to read a street sign. In Iceland this failure has nothing to reflect against, no way to return to me, and now, when I speak that kind of terror out loud into the enormous sky, it just keeps going away from me, into the nowhere.
Here is a thing you can try. When you are alone, make yourself as ugly as you can. Wear your tightest clothes to see where the fat bulges. Look in the mirror and scrunch your face, see blood come up in harsh red lines, see your yellow gums, your unwashed hair. Leave your glasses on. Doesn’t it feel delicious, embracing the hideous? When is the last time you got to be this ugly? And no one around to see?
Revel in it. I mean really rub it in.
Mr. Electrico, a carnival entertainer: he touched the young Ray Bradbury on the nose with an electrified sword and made his hair stand on end, shouting, “Live forever!” Bradbury says this is what made him want to be a writer.
Ray Bradbury: he talks about the Theatre of Morning Voices. When he wakes up in the morning, voices speak to him and he listens in the “echochamber between his ears,” and he says that when they are raised in passion, he runs to his typewriter and gets it all down before the echoes die.
Things my morning voices have said to me: Something about doctors, a splinter in the body.
In Iceland, in the empty northern house, morning voices are not always there. Sometimes I have to wait until long after dark and sometimes still, nothing.
When they don’t come I go outside to walk and to get sunlight to keep healthy. I am afraid of: being pathetic. I am afraid of: seasonal depression. A lack of sun leading to a lack of those chemicals in the brain that we all, every one of us, need. So I go through the tiny woods.
Iceland is less than 1% forested, much of it having been cut down for firewood or construction. The house is near Iceland’s largest forest. The kind man who directs the residency program told me, as we drove past a spread of trees barely taller than me, “This is Iceland’s largest forest.” It was so small, and so bare. I am the size of a big Icelandic tree.
I follow the tracks of an Arctic fox. Little white trickster. Sometimes I scare up birds but they’re not what I’m looking for. I want to find that fucking fox. I push through branches. Sometimes they cut my face. Goddamn that fox. I do not find him. I lose a glove and sit on my heels and maybe I am the only living thing around—I keep finding myself writing this down. The only living thing. And now I say aloud, “I could be happy like this. If I could live off 1,000 words per day.”
Sometimes I think I could sleep alone forever. Sometimes I draw faces on every cigarette in the pack, just so somebody is watching me.
There are times when I walk to the frozen field where the thick-furred ponies are and nobody is thinking of me at all, not anywhere, not once. And I am gigantic. I am the size of this immeasurable horizon.
Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher, who may have blinded himself,: “I came to Athens and no one knew me.” He earned the name for being cheerful; he earned the blindness and solitude through devotion to his work.
When I come in from the frozen field, when I come in from the biggest little forest, I call somebody.
I am trying so hard not to miss anybody.
He says, “What’d you do today?”
I say, “Today I found a sheep’s carcass, but it was just wool and ribs left. So that was the best part of my day.”
He laughs and I laugh too.
I sleep alone I wake alone I eat alone I go walking past the frozen horses alone I throw stones in the glacial lake alone I search for the mouth of a river alone I step into the enormous night alone I look for constellations alone I walk to the empty road alone I stand in the road and look for cars there is nobody coming. No cars. Nobody is coming, Oh God, it is empty. It is what I hoped for.
Three weeks. I eat dried fish. I eat half an avocado. The raw garlic burns my stomach. I buy tins of little herring with their heads still on.
I write stories that go on for ages. At some point, for just a couple days, I come to the clear cold space that must be preserved very delicately and I write and it is a sort of rapture that is better than anything, any drug, any drunkenness, any orgasm, any gift in the physical world.
I am the only living thing.
Days go by and I have not touched another living person for a week, for two weeks, and so I have to touch myself more and more.
I call the other living more and more.
“What’d you do today?”
“Did some writing. I walked the other way, way down the road. I found a church, but it was empty. I went inside and looked at the pews and read the pamphlets. I haven’t been in a church in—I dunno, months. I’ve only been in mosques recently, y’know?”
What the mosques smell like: Fine old carpet, high and dusty stone.
What the church smells like: Clean and new-planed wood.
What the Orleans jail smelled like: Oranges, real oranges.
I call the other living and we talk for hours. I call somebody in New Orleans and I call somebody in Istanbul. I have kissed both their ears. When they smile to see me I suck it up greedily; I am the neediest thing in the world. This is a thing I learn: I did not know I needed to be needed so badly, supposed to be independent, never live for the sake of a man but hello, hello, how are you? When are you coming home?
Anais Nin: “How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, rather than to create it herself.”
I take the shiny gold coin of their attention and I put it in my pocket.
I drink the coffee, I make the dinner. I listen to a song about being seventeen, and the singer sings, “Surrounded by nothing but the nothing’s surrounded by us.”
I walk and think about New Orleans, Istanbul. Miles and miles. Churches and mosques: they both woke me up. The off-key bells or the imam’s call to prayer. I am happy to be alone and then it is night and I have no wine and I do not want to be alone, and I call somebody, and he answers.
In the last few days, the director of the program invites me to Þorrabló, a kind of midwinter festival. Half the village is gathered. We have traditional foods– cured shark, lamb testicle, whale– and then there is a series of skits, all in Icelandic, about funny things that happened in the town. I don’t understand but I laugh with the others laughing.
Music and dancing start up after that, and so the first person to touch my arm in three weeks is an old old man, a man so old he stoops when he walks, who does not speak English, who waltzes me dizzily around the dim wooden room while I giggle and stumble and try to keep up.
Everyone is in couples. Moving around the room. I dance with many people, old men, young women, all clasping hands and doing smart quick steps. I don’t remember their names.
When we leave, I sit in the van and look out the window.
“Are those the Northern lights?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the director.
They aren’t lights, not really. Not the kind I saw in pictures. All I see is the faintest green glow. But I press my forehead to the cold glass and don’t take my eyes off them until they’re hidden behind the mountain.
The weeks end. I pack my bags to leave the quiet house, very early in the morning, while it’s still dark. I take a plane across the cold cold island and I land in Reykjavik where I stay with a boy I have never met before. He breathes on my hands. After I leave, after I have walked to the airport and taken the plane across the frozen sea and caught a connection in Denmark, I sit in a park in Copenhagen, fingering the mitten in my pocket. I touch the wool and write one more thing, one letter I never send, saying, Thank you for walking me along that coastal road to the airport, even though it was closed, because I had forgotten my music there. And I’m sorry I took one of your mittens and now your hand will be closed, cold, sorry to kiss you like that, but you were so handsome with your bad teeth and being alone, and it felt so good to say “I haven’t got any friends,” and I’m sorry I will not see you again. Thank you for laughing when I said, “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
I return to the continent and in my absence nothing has changed. I am still buying loaves of bread. I am still doing laundry, pouring blue detergent into the shining machine. I am still taking the change from the man at the fruit market, holding the cold and shiny lira, bruising the tomatoes.
When I get back to Istanbul I am not lonely anymore. I am with somebody and I kiss him here and here and here.
But I worry one last thing: that here, happy, surrounded, I am not doing work. The writing goes away. The morning voices get quiet because in the morning, here is a real voice, beside me, fitting close against me, warm and real and close and it is so much easier, so much nicer. He will not let me be lonely, in the gold-lit room in a warmer country.
I worry that something is lost, now, having been made un-alone.
But when he leaves for work, and I am the only one in his living room so soft with the fine Turkish carpet, I can be a secret self again. Maybe nobody is thinking of me, not once. I tick through the possible; I think of things I’ve read: Jill McCorkle: “I will roll back my nice oriental rugs and little Anaximander and I will roller skate.” Richard Siken: “How we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days / were bright red.”
I touch my unugly face in the bathroom mirror. I command, “Live forever!”
In the living room in the warm country, I am alone and not lonely. I am a living thing among many living things. Someone is looking forward to seeing me. What I learned in my movements from one blue-black country to another, and what I brought in my pocket back home along with gray volcanic stones and a lost Nordic mitten. How to be surrounded. How to be the only.
Thank you. I read this piece on a quiet morning watching the snow fall outside my window and it touched so many chords. The secret self, the desire to be unalone, the desire to be alone. This was beautiful.