"Old Lady Age" is doing her job on Bjarni Gíslason of Kolkustadir. The elderly Hay Officer's knees are stiff, his thoughts circle and he is restless with the need to say what he might have said years ago to the only woman he ever genuinely loved. If he can tell the story of them, perhaps he will finally understand it. If he looks for the truth, perhaps he'll find it.
"Dear Helga," his story begins.
Written by the Icelandic poet and novelist Bergsveinn Birgisson and translated by Philip Roughton, "Reply to a Letter from Helga" is a stunning work of art — resonant, earthy, heartbreaking. It is a story built of sheep horns, tussocks, gale winds, fishing huts, bone button holders, wolffish skin lampshades, young puffins, half-dried cod and one lovingly smoked corpse of a woman dead too long in a remote stretch of frozen landscape. It is folk tale and philosophy, a farmer's sensibilities and his favorite remembered poems. It is, most of all, elemental. While I know very little about sheep farming and have never traveled to Iceland — many of the terms in this slender story are delicately foreign — I never felt excluded, lost or forgotten. Birgisson is a generous, universal writer, and this is a love story. It transcends time and place.
Helga, we learn, was the most beautiful woman in this Icelandic countryside: a wife, a mother, the kind of person with whom a self-described Hay Officer like Bjarni might easily talk about lamb paunches and barrel-chested rams. When the rumor begins in 1939 that Bjarni and Helga have made love during the Feast of St. Lambert, there is no going back. Accused of a crime the two have not committed, Bjarni feels "bitter at being convicted, without having sipped of the cleansing sweetness of the crime."
Bjarni's wife, in response, turns sour and frigid, unavailable and distant. The "blatherers" in neighboring farms are relentless and sure. Defenseless against the false rumor, Bjarni also grows increasingly defenseless against his own magnificent desire. He sees in the surrounding landscape evidence of Helga. He lies down among the hills, and the essence of her is there.
The inevitable happens in spring. Helga calls on Bjarni to help her rid her sheep of scab, for her husband is up north breaking horses (and perhaps other things), and it isn't long before the two of them are naked in the barn. It was, Bjarni remembers, "like touching life itself." Soon he becomes Helga's "regular caller." And then the rumor that began it all dies, "As if the slander had been a shout of encouragement from the natural will that desired our union."
But love like this — stolen love — is never pure or purely beautiful. It is never without demands, without the need for compromise. Bjarni and Helga will have their unmitigated season of love, and then choices will have to be made. Will Bjarni stay in the country, which is known to him, physical, real? Or will he move to the city, a landscape of artificial things and lost ghosts and falsehoods? Bjarni knows what he loves. But he also knows who he is:
I've learned to read the snort in the bull's nostrils. Have felt the natural will of my livestock encompass and invigorate me. I've seen the blue-clad elf and heard fetches knock on the door. Felt the secret powers of existence in the hills and enchanted spots, and shooed off the guardian spirits of the land when my horse balked. Saw the light long ago. No one understands that it's possible to see the light long ago, but it's all the same to me if no one understands what is meant. I've learned to read the clouds and birds and the behavior of a dog. Perceived the wonder of the settlement of this country and felt the magnificence of its original inhabitants.
"Reply to a Letter from Helga" extols handcraft and hands, the known and cared-for earth, physical intimacy, the inheritance of dirt and myth. It mourns all that has been lost by way of convenience, all that we no longer understand, all that we can't touch. It cherishes, convicts and finally confesses.
"Reply to a Letter from Helga"
By Bergsveinn Birgisson, AmazonCrossing, 123 pages, $9.95 paperback
Beth Kephart's 14th book, "Small Damages," was recently named the year's most lyrical young adult novel in The Atlantic Wire. She blogs at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.