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by Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith

Published in English by Open Letter Books, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Book Cover


The soldiers cross the green meadow. The sun is at its height. Setting down their packs and weapons, they re--move their jackets and tie them around their sturdy soldiers' waists. Three together. Three white t-shirts and three green pairs of pants approaching a farm with a two-story house that rises from a huge nest of hedges and tall trees. A cow lows in the backyard. Four, five chickens waddle about the property. A dog gets to its feet and watches the garden gate open. Four children, an older woman, and a young man head out from the house with their hands clasped behind their necks. A moment later, a woman with a red tray comes out after them. A milk bottle, a silver coffee pot, three clean glasses, three cups, a knife stuck in a thick rye loaf. Butter and freshly-boiled eggs for the soldiers. A light breeze makes its way across the yard. One of the soldiers wipes his forehead. Another watches the third, who shakes himself, brushing off goose-bumps, or a thought. On the east side, beside the gate, a pebbledash table is set into the earth. The woman with the red tray heads there. The breeze tugs at the edge of her skirt. The people stand in front of the soldiers, who shuffle their feet in the gravel. One of the soldiers shoots the woman with the tray. The milk bottle and glasses shatter. The coffee pot clatters to the ground. Blood runs from the woman's eyes as she grips the tray tightly and falls; she lies face down in the grass as if resting peacefully on a pillow, and the blood leaks across it. The youngest child runs to her but is shot on the way. The cow lows in familiar fashion. The chickens hurry over to look at the bodies. The soldier who fired lowers his weapon. The other two shoot the dog, the woman, the man, two more children. But the young girl is spared, seemingly without a thought. She lowers her arms to her sides. One soldier shoulders his weapon and takes one of the strutting chickens in his arms. "I've always wanted to hold a chicken," he confesses. The other two step cautiously inside the house, weapons raised. Army boots inside the house, bodies too. While he is examining the chicken, petting and caressing it, the girl steals under the bush near the garden gate. Into a curved tree bed. Leaves and branches cover the trees like a long grass skirt. "You smell very good, my hen. A much better scent than I expected a chicken would have. Mmm, my chick," the soldier says, pressing the tip of his nose against the hen's belly. The girl licks the salty earth, decaying leaves, mossy stones, the clods of earth. She stares out from her hiding place as the animal lover prods the chicken's belly, examines its eyes, opens its beak, and inspects the tiny tongue. No teeth. Then they call him into the house. The soldier disappears inside, the creature still in his arms. The girl pulls herself deeper into the bed on her stomach, the way reptiles move. The sun shifts. It's one o'clock.


The trees rustled, and the curtains on the upper story were drawn by the cord. Perhaps someone could have compared the billowing of the curtains to that of a pregnant woman's dress. The cow in the backyard lowed like clockwork. The girl peered out from her hiding place. The chicken's clucking carried from the house. The chickens hadn't ever been invited inside, but this was a new era. Two more chickens strolled up to the doorstep. They finally had a chance to visit the humans' habitat. Just then the chicken inside cried out like she was about to be torn apart; there was an awful flapping of wings. The chickens hurried away. From the house, three gunshots resounded through the valley, as though the sound came from giant, well-positioned loudspeakers. One soldier dragged one of his bloody comrades across the threshold and laid him beside the other dead bodies. The cow lowed. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, disappeared inside and dragged out his other comrade, who was just as bloody. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He went in and came back with the chicken in his arms. He moistened his handkerchief with spit and wiped splotches of blood from her feathers. He set the plump chicken down, uncoiled a yellow hose, connected it to the spigot, and turned on the faucet. There was a rustling on the ground as the cat came over to the girl, who suddenly felt her allergies prickling. The soldier set down the hose and went over to the bushes. The cat appeared from the bushes and nuzzled its head against his boots. "Here, pussy," said the soldier, taking the kitten in his arms. The girl was definitely definitely definitely about to sneeze, so she ate some soil.


The soldier took off his t-shirt and washed his torso with the jet of water from the hose. The nozzle was an attractive orange and had three settings: a milder, more irregular jet; a sputter-spatter jet; and a strong, thundering jet. He must be using the last one. The kitty stood beside the red tray licking milk from the grass. The cow lowed from out back as though it was missing the fun, as it had on other occasions. Mooooo. The soldier sprayed water in the direction of his friend the chicken, and she danced about in the jet, her dance steps making her look like she was wearing high heels. Then he soaked the t-shirt like a rag, wiped his chest with the crumpled shirt, rinsed it, wrung it out, and hung it to dry on the narrow wooden trellis, which protected the rose bed that had been planted in front of the big French windows. On the other side, inside, by the windowsill, was the perfect spot for a portrait photograph. He picked up the hose, drank from the nozzle, and shut off the water.

The chicken followed him to the shed, where he kicked open the rusty door and got a shovel. He disappeared around a corner of the house, followed by the chicken, then reappeared and walked past the bush which stood against the garden wall—on the other side of which they had often sat in the grass to drink juice, eat cookies, and play ludo, nine men's morris, or backgammon. The chicken came back around the same corner of the house, and it took her a while, crossing the garden with smaller steps, neat chickensteps, to re-find her new friend.

Despite her restricted view, the girl could see the soldier studying part of the vegetable garden. He opened the greenhouse door, and the glass, which was too small for the frame, rattled. Beside the greenhouse grew tall, slender trees. He began to dig and shovel there. The chicken waddled around nearby. The other chickens approached, then retreated, approached again, retreated again. Done with the milk in the grass, the kitten prowled over to the girl, not interested in whether she'd like her allergies set off again; it wanted to make friends, to be affectionate towards her. Then the girl sneezed, and the kitten bounded all the way over to the soldier, who had in the meantime clambered down into the grave, which now came up to his waist. The mountain of used earth beside the greenhouse increased, and kittikins lay on the slope, watching the earth fall from the shovel onto a second mountain that was growing beside the first. The sun moved in a long arc. Tea-time came and tea-time went.

Only the soldier's head was still visible; he threw the shovel onto the bank and pulled himself up out of the grave. The girl wet herself. The soldier drank right from the nozzle of the garden hose and she saw his muscles flex. He turned the hose off, put on his t-shirt and work gloves, and dragged the body of one of his comrades into the freshly-dug grave. The body of his other comrade, too. The body of the young man, the older woman, and the woman who was still holding on to the red tray. No matter how he tried to pry the tray from her, he couldn't. The tray went in, the tray went in, it had done its service, it was ready to die. With a cigarette perched in his mouth, the soldier gathered the biggest glass shards from the grass and pitched them into the grave. Then the coffeepot, the rye bread, the butter, and the hardboiled eggs.


The soldier gathered the dog's carcass in his arms and tossed it into the grave. He went into the house, came back with his arms full of colorful sheets, and wrapped a yellow sheet around one child's body; down it went into the grave. He wrapped another child's body in an orange sheet; down it went into the grave. The third child's body could have gone in a light blue sheet, but it got a red one instead, and down it went into the grave. The girl stared at the light blue sheet as it lay on the grass beside a yellow ball. The soldier went back to the garden gate, pushed it so hard that it rattled on its hinges, and dug about in the gravel with the toe of his boot.

He went inside and stayed there for a little while, then came back and pulled on a blue turtleneck sweater which he had gotten from his backpack. The chicken went over to him as he lit a cigarette. "Hi my hen, you sweet old lady." He blew smoke and threw the light blue sheet away, into the grave. Before the sun went down, the two mountains of earth had disappeared into the ground again. He thoroughly packed and shoveled another one-and-a-half wheelbarrows of gravel from the yard, depositing them over the fresh grave.

He sat at the pebbledash table, where the three men would have been invited to sit just after noon, had they accepted coffee and freshly-baked bread, fresh milk from the cow, and freshly boiled eggs. He lit a cigarette; there's a lot of smoking in war. The cat hopped up into his lap and lay down but got poked and vanished under the bush. The soldier stood up. The girl wet herself. He stopped in front of the bush. She saw his shoes, his fingertips. He went over to the grave. He stood there with his back to the bush, his body hunched, not upright like a soldier's. The shadows had lengthened. The girl stretched all the muscles in her body and crept out from under the bush; she chewed on her hair and snuck across the field towards the vegetable garden. Children can be invisible. She had tested it time and again. Children are more often invisible than not. The girl stood still behind the soldier. After a whole eternity, he turned around and looked in her eyes. She was wearing an off-white dress with a finely-checkered pattern; she had muddy scratched knees where stinging nettles and tree branches had snatched at her; a muddy mouth; scratched and scraped cheeks; muddy fingers; dirt teardrops under her nails; white socks and white shiny shoes; a red bow in her hair; her dress was urine-stained. There was no gun in the garden. They were all inside. She had forgotten to think about that. For a moment she had forgotten the guns. Oh, oh. They hadn't come outside, even though the bodies had, and if they did, well, she could run at once. She could run at once if they came out.

"Good evening. I am Rafael," said the man in the blue turtleneck sweater, holding out his hand.

"Good evening. I am Billie," said the girl; she curtsied and shook his hand. The chicken tripped over to them. It didn't want to let itself get separated from its new friend, which was about to happen.


Rafael switched on the downstairs overhead light, hunted for all the lamps he could find in the living room, the kitchen, and the hall, and lit them. He wasn't saving electricity. He turned on the light in the guest bathroom and in the office with the writing desk, the financial papers, the safe, and the French windows with roses growing on the other side of the glass. In the pantry, where there was toilet paper, candles, canned food, and empty bottles. Billie thought crossly that he wasn't following the rules of the house—taking off his outdoor shoes by the shoe rack at the front door—but she decided to keep her mouth shut for the moment. It didn't open easily unless her heart was beating fast. She took off her own shiny shoes because she made an effort to follow the adults' rules—it was easier to—and she tried to avoid stepping on the red-colored lines which had formed from congealed blood and led down the stairs from the upper level, halfway along the corridor, and all the way outside. She looked casually around for the guns. The chest under the stairs was definitely big enough for long guns. The tin key was in its usual place, in the lock. She was about to check whether the soldier had seen her inquisitive glances when he touched her shoulder and asked if she had another best dress she could put on.

"Each person only has one best dress, and this isn't mine," the girl replied.

"But this one looks so pretty."

"My best dress is prettier."

"Would you put it on, please."

"It's not Sunday. It's not my birthday. And if it's someone else's birthday, then the birthday girl is probably dead. Do the dead celebrate birthdays?" she asked.

"No, not any more. Since the number of people on earth started rapidly increasing there's no time for individual birthdays for the dead. They are all celebrated on the same day, the first of November each year."

"I did not know that," replied Billie, formally. Her mother had taught Billie to talk formally to strangers.

"News doesn't easily reach remote places like this, places where there are no trains," said the soldier.

"No planes, rather," said Billie knowingly, for although she'd traveled by plane and train to magnificent places, she'd never heard any mention of the birthday of the dead—she'd only heard of Vanity's Day, observed each year on January 14th. Her parents used to celebrate Vanity's Day, before their relationship was torn up at the roots. There were no roots. The relationship between Soffia and Abraham had grown no roots except in Billie's heart. It was foolish to plant a relationship in the heart of a child, or so she thought, she who didn't need to turn her head or move her eyes to know that the gun barrel was right by the nape of her neck. The last she'd heard, Vanity was more than two thousand years old.

"Find your best dress," Rafael commanded in a calm, resolute voice. The tone of someone who was holding a weapon. It was a deep, soft-sounding voice, quite unlike Abraham's; his was shrill. Abraham wasn't well-built and sturdy like this man; he was tall, and so thin he looked like he'd easily fall apart. How could someone who was so tall and thin hold himself upright without falling prey to the law of gravity? That's because, Abraham said in his reedy, shrill voice, I'm a puppet. A thread extends from the top of my head, but it's only visible to the puppeteers, and they live in another dimension. The same kind of thread is attached to the backs of both my hands. It doesn't take more than three threads to hold me, the puppet, up. An assortment of beings, three of them, control the threads from another planet. And so I'm hesitant, shaky, and despairing. They tug at me, each according to his own inclination.

Dad, am I a puppet, am I a puppet, Dad, am I a puppet?

No, and not mommy either, and so you're lucky and I'm also lucky because I want to be a puppet.

Dad, is your voice shrill because you are so tall that it stretches your vocal chords more?

No, it's actually because the puppeteer who does my voice thinks I'm in a comedy, and that was how my life was before I met mommy. How unfortunate she is to have to listen to me. And so, Billie, ssh, don't tell anyone, I am silent all day long so she can be free of my voice. My voice is not fit for such a scientific life as your mother's, though it is fit for life with my child. Yes indeedy.

When I grow up I'm going to be thin and tall and a puppet, too.

Abraham placed a finger on his daughter's lips:

Careful what you wish for, my child, for things will actually turn out that way.

Billie went up the stairs made out of thick tree logs, the gun barrel against her nape, taking care not to step in the congealed blood. It wasn't blood like when the butcher cuts lambs and chickens and their blood gushes into the grass. The earth enjoys drinking blood, he'd told her and the other kids, the owner of those very beautiful knives, that excellent mustache, and extensive paunch—a butcher has to have a paunch, or else people won't trust the meat he sells. The blood had drawn a pattern on the floor of the narrow upstairs corridor, so the girl had great difficulty finding a bloodless spot where she could get a toehold, but the infantry soldier hurried her on and she had little time to think where to step, even though she was in her socks and he in his shoes. She looked hard at his covered feet, then at her own feet, then back at his feet, then at the linoleum on the floor. Some people simply don't understand things unless they're said out loud.

On tiptoe she went into the bedroom with the red bunk, opened the red closet, and fetched her best dress. There were several dresses in the closet—Soffia firmly believed that a girl like Billie should have many beautiful dresses, and Abraham agreed: a daughter is meant to be elegant. Billie laid her best dress on the green rug. "You'll need clean underwear, socks, shoes, an undershirt, and you must have a decent sweater," the soldier said. She had a yellow sweater. With the gun barrel he browsed through the hanging dresses and folded clothes on the shelf, handed her some white socks, underwear, and the yellow sweater: "Take these and go into the bathroom."

You don't wear white socks except on Sunday, she could have said, but she kept quiet and took the clothes. A bedside lamp lay on the floor in the big bedroom beside the bathroom. Things were different from the way they were before. Before, the bedside lamp had always been on the bedside table.

Some people want to use their memories sparingly and have everything in its right place—you might run out of memory if trinkets and toys moved about too often; they should serve us, not we them. If someone constantly has to hunt for things, then they might miss the benefits of memory, which allows you to cherish wonderful moments the way a princess cherishes her earrings. Someone had told the girl this, her mother, her father, a character in a movie. She remembered who, but it wasn't worth the risk of remembering.

But this raises a problem, her dad replied, her mother, another character in a movie: if someone wastes too much of her precious memory keeping track of trinkets. The bunch of keys lives here. The bedside lamp lives on the bedside table. The address book could get long and thick, memory over-crowded. Does memory function better in chaos or order, given that order must be managed by the brain's memory cells?

So it's possible to go back and forth, debating the mechanisms inside the brain. A bedside lamp which no longer stands on a bedside table is simply a lamp.

"Take off your clothes and get in the bathtub," said Rafael, sitting on the toilet seat with his gun pointed in the girl's direction. From the look of him, he was about the same age as Marius, many, many years younger than Abraham, who refused to tally each additional year: the years make me thinner, not fatter. I don't pile them on my outsides. They whittle me like a piece of wood. So in my case it's sensible to subtract and not to add. And Billie agreed. Little by little, her daddy would disappear. She slowly undressed. Like the archaeologist unrolling bandages from the mummy—and she herself was almost literally a mummy at this point in the story.

"Do you often wet yourself?" asked the soldier.


"Does evening come early round here?"

"I don't know. I am only eleven years old."

Rafael put the gun down in the sink and mixed water in the water tank with the precision of an investigative journalist or a cocktail waiter—the right amount of hot water with the right amount of cold water, given that a child's skin is sensitive to both hot and cold. He connected the faucet to the shower head and rinsed the girl's muddy hair and body. He massaged yellow shampoo into her scalp and it rinsed off light-brown and gray. She sipped a taste of the water as it trickled down her face. He turned off the water and handed her the green olive soap: "Soap yourself," he said and sat on the toilet seat massaging his forehead and eyes. Billie soaped her arms, her wrists, her little belly, the soles of her feet, her toes who said "Hi" (invisibly, quietly); "Done," she said out loud. Then he rinsed the soap off of her body with water from the shower head, turned it off, wrapped her in a yellow towel from the shelf, dried her hair and torso, ordered her to step out of the tub, and roughly dried her legs, feet, and toes. Then he wound a towel around her hair and made a wrap on her head, the way women in Africa do. Before the war Abraham had planned to go there with Billie. The two of them. Billie and Abraham go to Africa hand in hand. Following the road with a little suitcase. They would not need much stuff. Just some clothes. Sunglasses and money. Soffia would send them money. Her dad had a beautiful brown leather wallet. Wow, how empty it had been the last time she had seen it. Wow, how beautiful it was, both when it needed money and when it was bulging.

"Those of us who are in the army are lucky: we have short hair, but other people take so much time washing and drying their hair. Isn't it hard to have hair like yours?"

She shook her head, preening, because she was a budding woman, a little chick, she'd turn heads, or so her dad said, and he seemed to know a thing or two about birds, and when he asked Soffia she'd also said yes: definitely, Billie had the makings of a beautiful woman. Someone people will talk about. Rafael fished the gun from the sink, told her to dress herself in her pretty clothes, and sat on the seat and massaged his eyes. She'd never seen a man so tired, cansado, beat, exhausted, fatigué, müte, worn-down—not in real life nor in a movie.

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