Gone Lawn
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Gone Lawn 13
Winter, 2013

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Excerpt from From the Mouth of the Whale

Translation by Victoria Cribb

Last winter I was as solitary as Adam in his first year in paradise, though the island in winter is nothing like that delightful place. It is cold and bleak and one does not venture out of doors except to empty one's chamber pot, and not properly even then; one merely opens the door a crack, just wide enough for the pot. I was more like a wretched mouse in its hole than a man created in God's image. As little and hunched as the rat's cousin, not ramrod straight, proudly surveying my domain like Adam. Ah, yes, Adam was tall and held his head high. That way he could see over the whole world, for he was bigger and heavier than his living descendants, just under thirty yards in height, and with such a head of hair that his locks cascaded like a waterfall over his loins. He was the largest living creature that God had created from earthly clay. And all through that year as he walked the Earth alone, his massive body was being fired and glazed by the sun like clay in an oven. All growth was new: the trees put down roots, sprouted, then dropped their leaves and stood naked for the first time. The swans rose honking from the moorland tarns and heard their own voices for the first time. The bee alighted on the dwarf fireweed and quenched her thirst with fresh honey before buzzing in flight to the next flower cup. It had never happened before. Everything was new to the eyes of the man and he was entirely new to himself. Molded by the Master from the four elements, as they combine in the Earth, he was closer to his origins now than he ever would be again. His blood was still diluted with seawater, there was gravel in his flesh, roots crept along his sinews and muscles, the seed that quickened to life in his testicles was thick as spider silk and foamy as sea spume. Thus he strode across the world and wherever he looked he saw to the ends of the Earth. At night the starry sky turned over his head, an ever-moving, twinkling, living picture show, and his childish eyes began at once to draw lines between the points of light as he sought there for parallels to the things that he perceived on his journeys by day: a swan, a ram, a snake. By day the blazing orb of the sun floated over his head and its heat drew the sweat from his skin. On the longest day of the world's first year Adam grew so hot that the sweat broke out all over him and ran in torrents down his colossal trunk. Most of the liquid was absorbed by the golden mane that cloaked his body, and to wring the wetness from his hair Adam shook himself as he had seen the dog do—alone of all beasts this creature had taken to following him wherever he went—but in spite of such tricks the sweat continued to spring from its human source. Adam bent his head and cupped his hands to catch the liquid that poured down his forehead and fell like rain from his brow. He watched the bowl fill and the level of the salty water rising fast, before long reaching his thumb and forefinger, but for a moment before it flowed over the sides, its surface grew still and Adam saw a wondrous sight in the mirror of his hands: he saw himself. Thirst had not yet driven him to the waters, he did not yet know hunger, for a year was no more than an hour to the immortal man. And so he did not know himself in the eyes that gazed at him from the pool of sweat, did not recognize the smooth, glowing face that framed them, nor the nose that separated them. Shrieking with fright, Adam threw up his hands. When he dared to look back at where the face had appeared there were no more eyes to be seen, the mirror had shattered into countless drops, and although he collected more sweat in his palms, the surface was never again smooth enough to show a whole picture, for agitation made his hands tremble too much. After a while he gave up and stood without moving, staring blankly into space, his arms hanging idly at his sides. The sun descended in the sky and he felt her heat moving from his neck to his shoulders, from where she began her journey down his long spine. And then yet another wonder occurred, a phenomenon that he would hardly have noticed had the novel sight earlier that day not opened his eyes to the possibility that the visible world had more to it than that which is solidly present; why, from his feet grew a creature that seemed to originate in himself. At first it was nothing but a faint pool, although not shaped at all like a pool, and for a while he thought that this, too, was liquid pouring from his body, but by the time the patch of sunshine on his spine had settled lukewarm in the small of his back, the phenomenon had acquired a familiar form: a flat head, broad shoulders, and a thick trunk with long arms and short legs. Adam started back: it resembled nothing so much as the apes that lived in the southern part of the garden. In contrast to the dogs, these creatures treated him with contempt, scowling and grimacing whenever he came near. He did not know then that these grotesque half-men were put on Earth by the Creator so that he would recognize himself in them when he fell into sin. Ah, but there was still a long time to pass before the day when in their distorted faces he would see his own visage in pride, envy, rage, idleness, lechery, covetousness, or gluttony. Free from sin as he was, Adam did not understand the taunt, seeing them only as mischievous, hairy creatures, and often wondered why they were allowed to exist. But as the first man started back, so the dark creature moved backward with him, following close, pursuing him as if sewn to his feet, and when he finally straightened his back after trying to shake it off, trying in vain to tear its feet from his own, it had grown so long that it was almost as tall as himself. He had often lain on his back, feeling his own limbs, stroking from his upper arm down to his hand and along each finger to the tip, and in the same way his hands traveled down his thighs and calves to his toes—and beyond. Thus Adam was aware of the general form of his body, and in the dark patch that lay at his feet he saw for the first time a creature that resembled himself. At that moment his solitude was revealed to him, loneliness pierced his childish soul: all around him he saw pairs standing in the meadow: the lions and the sheep, the lizards and the tortoises, and in the waters the walruses and the whales, the flounders and the salmon, while above flew two swans and two eagles, and in the birch scrub a pair of snow buntings puffed out their breasts and sang of the joys of coupledom. Adam gazed out over the wide world; could it be that he had overlooked his other half? No, on his journeys around the Earth, he had peered under every stone, groped inside every crevice, turned over every clump of seaweed; there was nothing to be found that resembled him. Just as disappointment threatened to flare up inside him, bringing with it a sinful sense of ingratitude toward the Creator, his eyes happened to fall on the image on the ground and a still stronger sensation seized hold of his mind, yes, and body, too. Now it so happened that when this being found its way out of Adam's soles he was standing on the margin between land and sea, on sandy ground full of dips and hollows, dimpled and gently rounded. The image on the ground was thus much softer than him in form, the dips and swellings adding curves to its hips and breast. Yes, the feeling that gripped his mind also gripped his body. The limb between his legs swelled, reared up, and jutted forward, like the strong arm of an army commander ordering his troops into battle: "Onward to victory!" And without further ado Adam obeyed the command of his powerfully raised limb. He cast himself over the creature, thrusting his limb between its legs, deep into the sandy soil, pumping on top of it until a great, thick stream of sperm spurted from his body with the force of a tidal wave crashing against a cliff forty fathoms high. The climax shattered the rainbow on the inside of his eyelids, each color shooting out into the void like a meteor, sometimes violet, sometimes blue as water, sometimes yellow as the sun, and the seed flowed into every cleft in the Earth's crust, every crack in the rocks, every groove and fissure in the crystals, every hole in the soil. Thus Adam fertilized the underworld by lying with his own shadow. From this act sprang the race that dwells in the dark worlds underground. Was it thrice three hundred thousand that quickened to life on that single occasion? Is that the reason that wherever mankind settles he is preceded by a vast horde of invisible beings in mounds and hillocks, crags and mountains? But the Creator saw that this would not do: what an abhorrent thought that man should be filled with lust for his own shadow, let alone that from him should spring such a legion of offspring every time he lay with the earth. Before long, there would be no room for the mass of earth-dwellers in the darkness and they would burst forth with the same force as the sperm from their father's loins. So the first thing the Maker of Man did was to deprive Adam of his shadow until he had found a solution to the problem. And while Adam rushed around the realm of Earth, seeking an object for his lechery—bellowing with lust, leading a chorus of howling dogs that followed his every step—the Maker of the World invented woman, taking care to form her belly in such a way that it could hold no more than three human embryos at a time. Yes, and their species would shrink by an inch with every generation until man was not much taller than the ignorant son of Adam who sits here on the shore with his misshapen shadow, putting down these thoughts in words.

Sjón is the author of, among other works, The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse. Born in Reykjavík in 1962, he is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright. His novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavík.

Victoria Cribb lived in Iceland for a number of years, working as a translator, journalist, and publisher. She has translated the works of Sjón, Gyrðir Elíasson, and Arnaldur Indridason, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. in Old Icelandic literature at the University of Cambridge.

Copyright © 2008, 2011 by Sjón. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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