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Faroe Islands © The Faroe Islands Board of Tourism / www.visitfaroeislands.com
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Read Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen's Fantastical Short Story "Age Erases Itself"

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 2 August 2017
A poet is imbued with the power to literally change the world in the Faroe Islands selection from our Global Anthology.

In extraordinarily rough Weather and heavy Seas, occurring around the Time of Candlemass… so it is said that Saxen, yore a Harbour and even referrede to as Saxen Harbour in remaining Lawting Protocolles, was blockede and fillede with Sand.

These are the words of J.C. Svabo inReports from the Faeroe Isles 1781–82, paragraph 378.” According to Svabo this inclement Candlemass took place in the preceding Century, conceivably in the first Halfe.

Legend has it that early that same Candlemass in 1629, Tomasia við Gjónna was sitting in the Kvíggjarhamar settlement thinking about two Turkish pirate ships, which that same year had landed in Hvalba carrying, as reads in a letter in the Lawting Records, pirates who were “alle manner of rogues and company.” They plundered everything in their path, abducting 30 women and children and killing six others. Early that same inclement Candlemass, Tomasia við Gjónna stood there wishing that it were impossible for large vessels to enter the bay. So it happened that the wind started rising and half an hour later a storm was upon them. This was unprecedented. Many gathered in Kvíggjarhamar and heard Tomasia put her fear into words. From that day on Tomasia was venerated for her exceptional gifts. Her descendants were said to know more sacred words than the Lord’s prayer.

This veneration came to a sudden end in 1828, when the crew of the Scottish schooner “Broom” abandoned ship somewhere in the high seas leaving it to shipwreck in the bay with a cargo of 700 logs of Pomeranian timber. From every corner of the Faroes, hundreds of men arrived to obtain this quality timber, including Uggi við Gjónna, who snuck down to the bay one night to steal some of the wood, hauling logs until dawn. The lady of Dúvugarður homestead witnesses Uggi bringing the timber to the stables. Uggi is arrested around noon. In accordance with the Norwegian Law enacted by the Danish King in 1604, Uggi is sentenced to two months of “forced labour” in a prison for young males.

Kvíggjarhamar’s repute gradually faded away, and soon its good deeds were buried deep in oblivion.

***

Tommurin við Gjónna is born at the Landshospital in Tórshavn in 1969. He grows up in Saksun and spends his childhood much like any other kid at the time. He plays outside and often sits alone in the buttercup-filled ditches down by Pollurin, mesmerized by another world. Though there is one thing people find noteworthy. Nobody has ever seen or heard of Tommurin causing anyone trouble; as far as anyone knows, he has never refused to give a hand when asked. Tommurin is an exemplary boy.

One day, when spring showers are pouring down from a steel blue sky, Tommurin finds his mother’s diaries in an opening in the wall. He is 13 at the time. As he reads them his chest fills up with a strange feeling, as if something has gone missing. Residues of this feeling descend into his stomach and spray rumbling diarrhoea cramps down towards his coccyx.

Tommurin sits still in front of the kitchen window where, as usual, he drinks cup after cup of very strong coffee. His wife Fríðhild (born Heljardal) is also from his home village, Saksun. They marry when he is 18 and she 16. Theirs was not a shotgun wedding, but an acknowledgement of truest love. They will never be blessed with children, but that doesn’t upset their daily lives.

Tommurin is a recognized poet in Saksun, and the town is quite proud of him. The same cannot be said for people elsewhere. Other writers consider him too postmodern, and in some literary circles (particularly among expats) this genre is likened to domestic violence.

They are often visited by the village children. Fríðhild brings them cordial and biscuits, while Tommurin asks them philosophical inquiries. If they reply the way only children can, he ponders for a while, running a knitting pin through his beard, then stirs and explains to them, with his own childlike nature, how it all works. He sometimes amuses himself by showing the children a little basin with a monkey brain in it, which he purchased abroad as a young sailor.

“There is a computer in that big cupboard over there,” he tells the children. “It’s connected to the brain. The computer feeds the brain all sorts of information. I write on the computer, which is also in the cupboard. Everything I write is stored in the brain: experiences, facts, perceptions, sensations, it even thinks it has a body.” As he explains this, he shows the children the cable that runs along the floor and behind the cupboard. He whispers to them: “Can you imagine being just a brain?”

***

Fog oppresses the valley making it difficult to spot the neighboring houses. Tommurin’s mood changes with the weather. Bad weather always puts him in a bad mood. This morning in the fog, with faltering visibility, he thinks to himself how great it would be if he could turn the situation around—if the weather would humor him. This thought swells inside him, but by lunchtime, the weather has remained unchanged, and Tommurin pulls his socks up around the ankles and mumbles to himself that it would be best to let go of this fancy and get to work.

After his lunch Tommurin sits back down in front of the living room window to write:

As a homebound haddock

I swim in dark seas

Exhausted I trail the sun

Tommurin suddenly sees a lonely ray of light penetrate the window and fall upon the flat paper. When he looks back up he sees that the fog has dissipated. Shreds of mist here and there climb the peak of Nónið.

“That was strange,” he says to the page. “Was that a coincidence?” He takes another sheet and writes:

The dead tree in the garden

disappears into the heavens root first

and rains down again as dry soil

He waits a minute. Stares at the paper, focusing. He prepares to look up, letting courage tug at the muscles in his nape, ready to lift his head. But his eyes remain lowered. Then cautiously, he raises his head and looks out the window. No tree… it’s gone, and in front of the window dry soil floats down from a clear blue sky. Tommurin jumps to his feet, staggers backwards, knocks into a chair, falls over it, and smacks his neck against the doorframe. Everything goes black. Deep sea black.

An hour goes by and Tommurin is still unconscious. Slowly he comes to. When he peers through the window the sun is still shining and the tree is gone. Outside there is a little pyramid of soil.

***

Tommurin writes day and night. The children who used to visit him and his wife now find the doors locked. Fríðhild has started behaving as though she were some kind of detective. She pries everywhere and visits people to inquire for village gossip. She makes calls to other villages; she even calls people she hasn’t seen for years, in particular people whom she knows will be all too eager to share news. People begin to resent her. To each their own.

Many strange events start occurring in the village. Men out to summit mountains find them suddenly vanished; fences disappear causing flocks of sheep to stray from their paths and fall into gorges. Women who have long been denied children become pregnant. The villagers begin referring to Saksun as an ill-fated place where things are removed and erased. People move away.

Years go by, Tommurin and Fríðhild’s circle of friends dwindles. They become increasingly isolated. In the end they too move away, to the Scottish city of Aberdeen, but these erasures follow them and their anonymity doesn’t last; it’s not long before Tommurin and Fríðhild are outcasted and have to return to Saksun.

They are followed by a local news team who air a program about this strange couple. Eventually the networks also catch wind of them—the BBC broadcasts an hour-long TV special titled Tom’s Magic Pen. This attracts global attention and other broadcasters, large and small, who follow up on the story. Soon their street is teeming with journalists.

NGOs, as well as individuals from developing countries, invite Tommurin to spearhead an effort to erase all suffering and poverty from the world. This humanitarian work brings him worldwide fame.

Tommurin and Fríðhild become extremely affluent, and the once tiny municipality of Saksun grows to become the largest and wealthiest in the Faroe Islands. Saksun sprawls out and swallows up nearby Streymnes, bringing the number of inhabitants to 30,017. Meanwhile, the number of inhabitants in the capital, Tórshavn, is halved to 9,269; Stóratjørn, the once ambitious and new residential development, is like a ghost town. On Flag Day, the tunnel between Hvalvík and Kollafjørður is inaugurated. Three years later, a four-lane underground tunnel between Streymnes and Skálabotnur opens to the public. There is even a track installed for fully automatic trams, which unceasingly scuttle unmanned to and fro day and night. Politicians began debating whether to declare Saksun as the new capital of the Faroes.

Tommurin við Gjónna, or TG as he calls himself now, is now an international celebrity. He lives deep underground where he has set up a gigantic computer network, which aggregates all the reported news of suffering and poverty he has been tasked to erase.

In the wake of his activism, new media companies spring up dedicated to broadcasting only good things. TG blocks them from his transmissions. He just wants to see misery.

“No matter how I scrape off wars here and there,” he says in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, “peace doesn’t come.”

***

As the years go by, and TG grows elderly, literary scholars cast a new light on his poetry. He has rewritten the evils of history by erasing them. Nobody knows of any other poet having had such a deep impact on global society. Two treatises of his work are published back to back. A large American studio approaches him offering big bucks to film a movie of his life.

But Tommurin just wants to write. He still sits in front of the living room window, in the same chair, at the same table, drinking the very strong coffee from the same cup as he always has. The only difference is that he doesn’t have the energy that he once did, but that doesn’t bother him. The blocked, benevolent TV channels have multiplied, while the other, more miserable ones have dwindled.

Then when Tommurin is 67, something happens in the old Kvíggjhamar settlement now part of Saksun: his nephew shoots his wife. She’d cowed him for years, once beating so badly that he ended up with a cranial fracture and had to be taken to the Svartá hospital, one of the most advanced in the Saksun valley. When the Faroese TV station break the news about the murder, Tommurin doesn’t write anything. The media (and particularly Faroese book critics in Denmark) claim that he has lost his grip on reality, that he has become a dishonest poet. He is once again considered postmodern in literary circles.

“True poetry, the kind that moves mountains and borders, should be about the truth,” one critic wrote in Amnesty magazine, “even if the truth may bite you in the ass. Especially the truth behind a family tragedy.” That same literary scholar’s career is soon erased.

TG assumes a new identity. He obtains a new passport and settles in Porvenir, a Chilean town that was once a hub for Croatian immigrants in the late 1800s. Porvenir is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, which has around 5,400 inhabitants. Its coordinates are 53:17:45 S; 70:21:53 W. Its main sources of revenue are from fisheries and sheep farming. A Chilean army unit is also stationed there as is a high-security prison and an industrial slaughterhouse. But Tommurin and Fríðhild find Porvenir very much to their liking. Here, nobody recognizes them and Tommurin walks three times daily down to the beach and its many shipwrecks, which all sank during the great 19th-century gold rush. Their masts emerge from the sea’s surface like tilting crosses.

“Age erases itself” is the final sentence of the final collection of poems written by the great poet from Saksun. Then he stops writing. The scholars who study his work are never able to discern why.

On Candlemass Day, 2039, the same day a man named Oval Atomoto switches on ‘Langabrekka’, a giant nuclear power plant in Nólsoy, Tommurin’s life comes to an end. He is 70 years old. That same morning a postcard disclosing the news and his whereabouts appears between the cut-off legs of a middle-aged weather man at a local TV station in Punta Arenas in the Strait of Magellan. On the postcard there is a picture of Saksun, the way it looked back in 2007 when Tommurin wrote his first erasure. On the back is his address in Porvenir. On the evening the body is cremated, the whole world tunes in by satellite to watch the funeral. Fríðhild inherits his entire fortune, but dies soon from a unknown disease: all blood vessels detach from her heart. When they find her, there is a yellow note in her clenched fist.

… slash back at history

skim all your dreams with a scythe

and plant a seed outside your window

Translated by Marita Thomsen. Published courtesy of the author and Vencil where this story first appeared. Read our interview with Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen here.