From the Mouth of the Whale

A Novel

Sjón; Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks


Dazzling light: when the day is such a brilliant blue-white that the firmament is no longer a frame for the burning sun, rather the sun has become the kindling for a brilliant silver curtain that rises at the horizon and is drawn across the entire visible world, while the mountain ranges to the north, west, and south shimmer as if in a mirage, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight, but never still; and the sea is a sheet of billowing velvet, stretching from the shores of the island to the hem of the sky, while the island itself, glittering in its midst, is a yellow-gold button on a downy cushion, waiting to be dented by the head of the heavenly child; and the whole vision is run through with tinkling bright silk thread, nimbly tacked between earth and sea and sky and fiery sun with the great needle that can pierce every element. But tracing the blazing needlework means little to the human eye, for although one line springs from another, like vein branching from vein on a birch leaf or the back of one’s hand or a precious stone, this magnificent play of light is so small when set against eternity that to perceive the whole picture the spectator would have to step back into the next world, to stand beside the throne of the One who in the beginning opened His mouth and uttered the words: “Let there be light!”
And there was dazzling light.
*   *   *
Jónas the Learned sits on a rock by the shore, gazing at this world, which has silently merged into a single point of light. He has not taken his eyes off it since he sat down and the vision first began to take form, and now his pupils are like grains of sand, the protective film of tears has dried up; he urgently needs to blink but cannot lest the vision disappear before he can fix its details in his memory, which is essential if he is to interpret it. But in the end there is no avoiding it, either he must draw down the lids over his eyes or else he will go blind. He blinks. But instead of dissolving, the vision gains an addition: far to the northwest, in the angle of a cove where land meets sea in a glimmering mirage, a tiny black spot appears and begins slowly to move out into the bay. Careful not to lose sight of the sailing dot, Jónas shifts on his hard stone seat and takes a deep breath: this could be a long wait. He opens his eyes wide and keeps them like that until an infernal cramp seizes every muscle in his head, from the corners of his mouth to his crown, and his face is distorted into a ludicrous mask of suffering, but by then the dot has grown to the size of the smallest fingernail on an infant’s hand and the spectator dares to close his lids again for an instant. Next time Jónas looks at the dot it has changed shape and is no longer a dot but a diamond, a black diamond sliding over the silky smooth sea: it is the prow of a boat and that boat is making for the island.
There is a man standing in the bow—the watcher on shore squints in the hope of recognizing him (could they be bringing him supplies?), but the light falls on the man’s back—as yet he is only the silhouette of a man—and he raises his right hand in a grand gesture, as if waving to Jónas Pálmason the Learned. Jónas is about to wave back but lets his hand fall in his lap when he sees that the greeting was assuredly not intended for him. For as soon as the man’s arm comes to a stop above his head there is such a whooshing of feathers that the wind blows from all directions at once as every last bird in the north obeys the man’s command, swiftly swooping in from land and sea. Whether they have been endowed with large wings or small, speckled coats or black stockings, whether they are short of beak or long of shank, with heather in their crop or sand eels in their gullet, the birds answer the summons and circle like a whirlwind over the man, calling, squawking, chirping, until each finds its place in the sky above his head. When the down finally ceases to snow from their wings, Jónas sees that the flock has formed a living fan over the boat, in which a pair of each species (cock and hen, drake and duck, gander and goose) has lined up according to size, from the wren, fluttering at shoulder height around the man in the bow, to the puffin, which flaps frantically somewhat higher, to the piping whimbrel hovering above the mallard but below the cruel eagle, right up to the swans, cob and pen, beating wings so white that they rival the silvery firmament.
After studying this vision for a while, Jónas blinked, at which the man lowered his arm and pointed to the surface of the sea. In an instant the sea became as clear as a cool autumn evening and the boat appeared to be hanging in thin air rather than floating on water, for the ocean had grown so translucent that its bed could be seen far and wide, even to the horizon. Jónas saw now that the island was like a tapering peak; he sat not on a rock on the beach but on the edge of a precipice. Then the glassy sea began to boil, the deeps churned, and now the fish came swimming with rapid flaps of their tails, from south and east, from the shallows by the shore and the trenches beyond. There were redfish and whiting, shark and plaice, sea scorpion and halibut, thorny skate and cod, herring and seal, and all the other fish Jónas the Learned knew and others he did not. Observing the same rule as the birds in the sky, they arranged themselves according to size, from the keel of the boat to the bottom of the sea, sticklebacks at the top, sperm whales at the bottom, and so many species in between that when each pair was in place the shoal spread out in the clear brine like a scallop shell, a glittering reflection of the flying fan above. There was no respite for Jónas’s eyes as he cast his gaze hither and thither between sky and sea, memorizing the appearance of the birds and fishes, their similarities in color and shape, redwing and redfish …
All the while this spectacle lasted, the boat slid ever closer to the island—moving of its own accord though there was no wind in that still, cloudless, dazzling world—and had Jónas paid any attention to the figure standing in the bow he would have seen that he was a man in his forties, clad in a coat of gray-brown or gray-speckled homespun, with a homespun hat of the same color on his head, while under the brim could be glimpsed eyes that seemed to glow like glass orbs. The man swung his arm again, drawing the naturalist’s attention from the creatures of the heights and depths: this time he pointed to land. Then it appeared to Jónas as if in a revelation that from the shores of the sea to the peaks of the glacier a specimen of every kind of plant nourished by Icelandic soil tore itself willingly from mold and gravel—everything from the forget-me-not to the rowan tree—and the flowers of earth rose into the sky, light as mist from a mountain tarn. High in the sky, the grasses and herbs classed themselves according to their growth, twining together to form a vast garland that danced over the barren wastes, giving off a perfume so sweet that Jónas nearly swooned. But he had to stay awake, for the spectacle was not over: now the land animals entered the stage on a mossy stone, the fox and the field mouse; the little mice perching serenely between the foxes’ ears.
The man in the boat repeated his last movement, drawing back his outstretched arm and swinging it to shore. The ground opened. The mountains sloughed off their screes so that one could see deep into their bowels, where countless metals, crystals, and precious stones lay on different ledges, sparkling and glittering, many ancient, others newborn, reddened by the glow of subterranean fires and bathed in the waters of underground rivers.
“Yes, yes … Oh yes!”
Jónas Pálmason the Learned rocked on his boulder. Yes, there it was on the topmost seat, the highest ledge of all—that dearly bought metal that he had always suspected lay concealed in the unkind flesh of his motherland, the very blood of the Earth: gold!
“Did I not say so? They…”
He got no further. There was a blare of trumpets.
It is the swans, thrumming their vocal cords. The other creatures fall silent, the sea trout gently flicking its tail, the raven softly flapping its wings. The feathery trumpets sound a second time. Jónas looks up and realizes that the boat is nearing land. He rises to go and meet the boatman, buttoning up his jacket, running a hand through his hair. But then he becomes aware that the fanfare was not intended to welcome the boat. Far out on the rim of the sea to the north appears a school of whales, which swim rapidly south across the bay.
The clarion call is to welcome these newcomers to the game. In a synchronized water dance they dive beneath the boat and shoot their heads out of the sea beyond: twelve narwhals from Greenland. They raise their twisted horns, seven ells long, to the sky, clash them together, and cross them like the lances of a guard of honor, the whole dance conducted to the sound of high-pitched singing and a great splashing of fins. With this the vision is complete, an intricate, carefully thought-out coat of arms:
Bird in air,
mammal on moor,
fish in sea,
plant on shore.
Stone in ground,
man in the middle,
monsters of the sound,
submissive—no more?
*   *   *
The dazzling light played on the retinas of Jónas Pálmason the Learned, who had seen nothing so fair in all his sixty-three years on Earth. Ever since he reached manhood he had secretly longed for the good Lord to reveal to him the order of things, to allow him to examine how the world mechanism is put together. Once, when he and Sigrídur lived at Uppsandar, he thought he perceived in the sky the outlines of a colossal foot that rested on the globe of Earth. The sole was contiguous with the surface of the sea and the heel rested on the lowland beneath the glacier, while the shape of the ankle could just be made out where the sun stood at its noontide zenith. It must have been an angel.
Jónas fell to his knees, tears welling up in his eyes, his tongue dry and cleaving to the roof of his mouth. He lay down on his side, knees drawn up under his chin; he had goose bumps, a headache, and cramps in his muscles and guts. He broke out in a cold sweat. His senses had been strained beyond what a human can bear.
“Oh, do not let me lose my mind! I must hold on to my wits so that I can fix this revelation in a poem…”
He heard a crunch in the sand. A booted foot was planted beside his head. Jónas looked up: the man was standing over him. His boat was resting in a bed of seaweed. Nothing else of the vision remained. Man and boat, that was all. Sky and sea had recovered their true form. From Jónas’s point of view, the man was framed by clouds that darkened the lower one looked. A gull mewed. It was going to rain.
The stranger held out his hand to Jónas. It was an elegant, spatulate hand, the middle finger of which sported a silver ring engraved with an inscription. Jónas accepted the proffered hand and the man raised him to his feet. Still without releasing Jónas’s hand, he studied him curiously and said:
“Good day to you, Jón Gudmundsson the Learned.”
Jónas did not return his look. He was so preoccupied with trying to read the inscription on the ring that he apparently failed to notice that the man had addressed him by the wrong name. He returned the greeting absentmindedly:
“Yes, good day yourself…”
Before Jónas could make out a single word of the inscription, the man let go of his hand and, turning away from Jónas, said with authority:
“I’ve come to fetch you. You’re to prepare yourself for a journey.”
Jónas stopped brushing the sand off his clothes. Had he heard right? Was he free? The man continued:
“You’re to bring with you your drawing lead and wood-carving knife, which will come in useful where you’ll be spending the winter.”
“And where is that?”
“You’re going to Copenhagen…”
Jónas’s heart took a leap and he bounced on the spot, then raced off toward the hut, calling:
“Sigrídur, we’re leaving! We’re free!”
But Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir was not there. Jónas scanned his surroundings. He bounded up the slope above the hut, which gave a view of the whole island. Sigrídur was nowhere to be seen. He called her name, again and again. The man was bending over his boat on the beach, paying Jónas no heed. Jónas ran to him and clutched at his coat, squawking repeatedly:
“Where is she, what have you done with her?”
The man did not answer. Nor did he look up from his task. Moving without haste, he placed one oar in a cleft amidships, where it stood firm like a mast. This seemed such a curious arrangement to Jónas that it rendered him momentarily silent, giving the man a chance to speak:
“Just do as I told you and fetch your gear.”
“But what about Sigrídur?”
The stranger turned and Jónas saw his face for the first time. He backed away. The man had rather a small head with a face that narrowed toward the chin, a mustache and beard, and whiskers growing to the middle of his cheeks. Before his eyes he wore two glass lenses, which sat in a frame that was fixed behind his ears. As Jónas leaned forward to examine this contrivance more closely, the man shot out his left hand, caught hold of Jónas’s shirt, and pulled the island-dweller close. Laying his mouth to his ear, he said quietly:
“Sigrídur is standing in the hut doorway. You’re still caught up in your vision; that’s why you can’t see her.”
Jónas looked around and saw out of the corner of his eye that it was true. There was nobody standing in the doorway of the hut. He lost his footing, the cramp twisted his guts again, and he felt faint. He wanted to lie down, to curl up on the sand. The man tightened his grip on his shirt, held Jónas upright, and whispered:
“We’ll make sure she’s still here when you return…”
With his right hand he opened the neck of Jónas’s shirt and, splaying his fingers, ran his manicured nails quick as a flash along the rib in Jónas’s right side—the fifth, whether one is counting from top or bottom—flaying skin and flesh to the bone, right around to the back where he snapped the rib from the spine, then jerked it vigorously until the front end broke off the cartilage that connected it to the breastbone. Jónas felt no pain in spite of the blood that gushed from the wound and ran along the man’s fingers and down the back of his hand to his wrist. The man brandished the bone under his nose. The rib was fattier than Jónas would have expected: the summer had been kind to him and Sigrídur. He had managed to lure away a nine-week-old seal pup from the colony that bred on the southern side of the island. It had made a good feast. In fact, they had eaten more of it than they meant to and cured less for the winter. Jónas was delighted to see how much of the seal fat had transferred itself from the pup to him.
The man flung the rib bone away:
“That’s where you’ll find her!”
The bone landed in the doorway of the hut and bounced from there into a bed of heather beside the path below, where it came to a standstill. The man released his grip on Jónas and, pulling out a white handkerchief, began to wipe the blood from his hand:
“Hurry up now…”
Jónas found his footing on the shingle and fumbled at the wound, which had already healed, leaving nothing behind but a pink scar and a hollow where the rib had been. Having tied up his shirt points, he hurried to the hut. He stuffed stockings, undershirt, knee breeches, a woolen jersey, hood, and mittens into his haversack. Writing instruments, whittling knives, blank pages, a small dice-shaped box of seal bone, and a pocket-sized book went into his satchel. This was all he had for the long journey ahead. He donned his leather hat. The man was standing beside the boat, ready to assist his passenger aboard. Jónas trod the path down to the beach. When he came to where the bone was lying in the heather he could not contain himself. Flinging himself on all fours, he pressed hot, tear-soaked kisses on his rib:
“Good and best of wives, my darling mistress, mother of my children, Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir, may God bless you and protect you in your solitude, in the condition, unnatural to any woman, of living without male guidance … May He keep you and answer your prayers in your widowed state if pirates should take me as their prize … May He strengthen you in your anguish if you learn that I have been forced into servitude through the action of my enemies … May He comfort you if I am stabbed to death by brigands … May He wrap you in His great, merciful embrace should an evil sea serpent wind itself around my vessel and smash it to pieces, killing everyone on board and me as well … May He take pity on us and allow us to meet again in the wide halls of Heaven if, disgusted by mankind’s evil deeds, He decides to destroy His creation while we are still separated by land and sea, while you are here and I am there … May His fatherly countenance watch over you…”
It grew suddenly dark and drizzle began to fall from the sky. The man ran to Jónas, raised him to his feet, and, putting an arm around his shoulders, supported him down to the water’s edge, where he helped him on board the boat, settled him amidships, and made him hold on to the oar that stood upright there like a mast. With the other oar he pushed off from the landing place. The keel grated on the bottom, the oar blade creaked. Finally the boat was free, rocking gently on the swell. Pulling in the oar, the man placed it parallel to the keel and took a seat on the stern thwart.
The vessel made a southeasterly course into the swiftly falling dusk. They sailed without speaking. After a little while it occurred to Jónas that the wound in the Savior’s side had been in the same place as that which was formed when Adam’s rib was removed. He was about to open a conversation on the subject but stopped when he saw that the man was nodding off in his seat. They could discuss it later. The dusk deepened. Jónas looked around and noticed that there was a little pennant bound to the top of the oar: a red wing on a white background. It was the handkerchief stained with Jónas’s blood, bearing the man’s handprint.
The darkness was almost complete when the man stirred and pointed with the toe of his right boot to a long, tapering box that was lashed down firmly in the bow. It emitted a disagreeable rattling croak. He said:
“That’s for Ole Worm…”
At that the darkness turned pitch-black, so black that it can only be compared with the dazzling whiteness that reigned at the outset of Jónas’s vision.
*   *   *
In early September 1636, Jónas Pálmason the Learned was fetched from Gullbjörn’s Island and conveyed in secret to the south of Iceland. After five days’ riding he was brought to the trading post of Bakki on the south coast and that same evening put on board a merchant ship, which was due to sail on the morning tide. He did not know who was behind his transportation but their treatment of him was gentler than what he had been accustomed to from men in authority, and conditions on board were better than a convict could hope for; instead of being confined in the prison hold he was allowed to sleep with the crew. The whole undertaking was a mystery to him. Back when his trial for the book of sorcery that he had allegedly compiled, and the school of necromancy that he had allegedly run, had resulted in the severest sentence of outlawry, with the proviso that no one was to shelter or assist him in any way, Jónas had tried in vain to leave the country. He had trekked with his wife and children from one end of Iceland to the other, to wherever a ship might put to shore, begging a passage, but no one would take them aboard. Whether this was from fear of carrying a sorcerer or from malice, or else a conspiracy by Jónas’s enemies—who might be able to secure an even harsher penalty, perhaps even death, if he violated the terms of his exile—we shall never know, but this reluctance to allow him to comply with his sentence condemned him to outlawry in his own land for five long years, until without warning or explanation he was carried on board the ship which was now rocking him to sleep on the night swell in Bakki Harbor.
At first light, as the ship was weighing anchor, another passenger was brought on board. Jónas woke up when a man with a canvas sack over his head was led through the sleeping quarters by two guards in the employ of Prosmund, the Danish governor of Iceland. After ordering the prisoner to sit on the deck diagonally opposite Jónas’s hammock, they removed his shackles and left. The new arrival moaned pitifully and winced as he fiddled with the knot that held the sack firmly in place on his head; his hands, blue from the irons, fumbled helplessly. Jónas rolled out of his hammock and loosed the sack from the man’s head. From beneath the canvas emerged a face with a fair beard and mournful blue eyes. It was his son, Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur Jónasson. Father and son fell weeping and wailing into each other’s arms, and wept together in the cabin for so long that a sailor eventually drove them up on deck, where they wept some more until they had almost wept away the terrifying but compelling sight of the land disappearing below the horizon.
Father and son sailed the seas and came safely to harbor.
In those first few hours after he stepped ashore in Copenhagen, Jónas the Learned saw more people than he had hitherto seen in the whole of his life: more aprons, more hats, more boots, more chickens, more pigs, more horses, more wheelbarrows, more dogs, more soldiers, more cannon, more wagons, more roofs, more buildings, more windows, more doors. And also many things he had only ever seen in pictures: windmills and water pumps, towers and market squares, churches and castles, sculptures and friezes, trees and ponds, cobblers and tailors, cheese merchants and muleteers. He tried not to let any of it impinge on his consciousness, tried to ignore all the new buildings, for he longed above all to be carried away by the illusion that he had arrived in the realm of Gormur the Old, the ancient king of the Danes. The feeling had first begun to grow in him when they sighted the Faroe Islands during the voyage. At last Jónas was seeing with his own eyes something he had drawn on those maps of the world that he had been able at times to use as payment for hospitality or provisions when he and Sigga were on the run with their children. But instead of poring over paper, looking down from Heaven as if with the eye of the highest flying bird, he himself was on the map. And he was seized by the conviction that when he set foot on Danish soil all roads would be open to him. For Jónas had reached the place where the white background on maps ends—that expanse which the draftsman feels compelled to decorate with monsters and seahorses and floating polar bears to prevent the eye from growing bored of the ocean—he had reached land in a place that was strangely familiar to him, although hitherto he had known it only as his own handiwork, realized in birch ink and paint; faint, of course, to keep the place-names legible. Being accustomed to thinking of the world as a picture that can be folded up and put away in one’s pocket, or a terse geographical treatise by a medieval historian, he had the impression that from where he was now it was but a short hop to all the main sites of history: south to Constantinople and the Holy Land, east to Sweden and Tartary, to Novaya Zemlya and Asia.
But the sights that met his eyes were nothing to the assaults on his ears, for everything had its own attendant noise: rattling, cackling, shouting, banging, barking, jingling, neighing, belching, cracking, grunting, whining, clapping, and the thunderous footsteps of man and beast, running, limping, ambling, tramping. To be sure, Jónas could limit his field of vision by walking close behind Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur, eyes fixed between his shoulder blades—which he did despite his son’s constant complaints that he was treading on his heels—but he could not shut out the noise. He could not block his ears, since both his hands were full. In one he was carrying a bundle of clothes belonging to their guide, a student from the south of Iceland who in return for help with his luggage was going to show them to a tolerable inn, while in the other he was holding the oblong box, which reached from his fist down to his ankle. No, to have muffled the din of the city he would have had to pour wax in his ears.
Jónas Pálmason the Learned was one of those people whose life is forever turning with the wheel of fortune. He had no sooner reached a safe haven than he was sent straight back out onto the stormy sea, and always in a leakier vessel than the one in which he had arrived. Father and son took rooms at an inn called the Sommerfugl, or Butterfly, which Jónas nicknamed the “Summer Snipe” after the harbinger of summer on his island; a respectable lodging for decent men and a sign that Providence was apparently prepared to handle him and Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur with silk gloves from now on. Indeed, his stay at the inn was so delightful in comparison with his exile on the island or being tossed at sea on the merchant ship that for the first week he could not be persuaded to leave the house but lay all day long in bed, haltingly reading a recent edition of Aesop’s Fables. Besides, he was fairly insulated there from the hubbub of the city. Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur, on the other hand, dashed all over town, working to resolve their case, which was the purpose of their journey, after all: to obtain a royal writ dismissing the charges against them. He went hither and thither among those of their countrymen who he had reason to believe would be well disposed toward him and his father, asking their advice on how best to bring the matter to the attention of the king, for it would take no less than a handwritten, sealed writ from His Majesty King Christian IV to induce the judges of the Icelandic Althing to change their minds. And that was easier said than done. Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur discovered in addition that those responsible for their passage to Denmark were a group of scholars who had grown weary of Ole Worm’s incessant questions about this Jónas the Learned, who the Danish professor was convinced possessed a vast fund of knowledge about the ancient runic alphabet. For six years they had given him the same answer: that little was known of this Jónas beyond the fact that he was continually on the run from the authorities, a condemned man who infected all who came near him with his misfortunes. In the end, however, when Dr. Wormius had contrived it so that the University Council was prepared to take up Jónas’s cause, and his son’s too if need be, his Icelandic colleagues could no longer ignore the requests of their brother in academia and personal friend of the king, so they had instigated a collection to pay for Jónas’s passage. And they sent Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur with him in the hope that the troublesome father and son would never return to Iceland.
By dint of telling Jónas that one of the stalls by the harbor had a monkey on display, Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur finally managed to rouse his father’s interest in seeing more of Copenhagen than the inn and its garden. Ever since Jónas had read Aesop’s fable about the monkey and the fox, he had been puzzling over the paradox that the animal which most resembled man should be bested by a four-footed beast with apparently human wits. He now longed to see a monkey with his own eyes, having seen more than enough of foxes. But before Jónas the Learned could abandon his straw mattress for the monkey, the machinery of Fate creaked into action once more; news came to the ears of father and son that their enemies from Iceland had reached Copenhagen before them and already launched a campaign of slander. The fiends had compiled a scroll containing all the vilest and most vicious things that had ever been said or written about Jónas the Learned, largely derived from the polemic by Reverend Gudmundur Einarsson of Stadarstadur, commonly known as the Treatise but described by himself as “In versutias serpentis recti et tortuosi, that is, a little treatise against the deceits and machinations of the devil, who works sometimes by straight, sometimes by crooked ways, to ruin the redemption of mankind.” The juiciest morsels of this stew were highly seasoned with warnings to the Danes not to take pity on a scoundrel like Jónas, let alone permit him entry to the country, or, perish the thought, risk sheltering scum like him in Copenhagen, where Mayor Juren had long been troubled by an obscure but agonizing internal complaint for which he had undergone extortionately expensive and painful cures that had achieved little but to keep him hanging on at death’s door. But since it was commonly rumored that witchcraft lay at the root of his disease, no cost should be spared in tracking down the culprit. In such an atmosphere it proved easy for Jónas’s enemies to sow the seeds of mistrust and ill will toward him. In consequence, one noontide in mid-October a group of officers stormed the inn and arrested Jónas in the name of the king.
He was dragged before a magistrate at city hall, where the slanderous scroll against him was read aloud and given credence, despite its mediocre composition—it lacked both tail and hind legs—and Jónas was sentenced to be transported back to Iceland. However, as there would be no ships now until spring, he was to remain in custody until that time. The magistrate paid no heed to Jónas, or rather to Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur on his behalf—since Jónas could not speak a word for the lump in his throat—who explained that he had come to Copenhagen to pursue his rights over a miscarriage of justice that had been perpetrated at the Althing, and, quite apart from that, he was a special envoy with a gift for none other than Olaus Wormius and his errand had not yet been fulfilled. The learned professor would unquestionably confirm that Jónas was not the dangerous criminal described in the letter. Was the magistrate unaware that he was known as “the Learned”? The magistrate did not listen, any more than he had listened to the other defenses that Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur pleaded on behalf of his father. In the end, however, it was the gift for the esteemed Rector Ole Worm that decided the matter by lending support to the idea of Jónas’s dubious character, for it was a live Great Auk.
The creature had already caused alarm among the other guests at the Sommerfugl Inn, being unlike any bird they had ever seen, not only larger and more imposing but with a hoarse voice and a croak like the death rattle of a choking man. For the first few days Jónas had taken the Great Auk down to the dining room with him, placing the oblong box at his side, removing the lid, and feeding the bird herring, which was plentiful in this country. The creature liked the food as much as the Danes did, though Jónas himself retched at every mouthful of this fatty inedible muck. After dinner he had permission to air the bird in the back garden. There was no danger of its escaping when he let it out of its cage, since it could not fly and was easy to corner. It was the Great Auk’s evening perambulations that had filled the onlookers with such misgivings; the manner in which the bird, if it was a bird, waddled about among the hens, upright like a manikin, conjured up ghastly tales from the dark recesses of the mind: tales of people who had been lucky to escape alive from the clutches of witches on Walpurgisnacht, being left dumb, disfigured, and a burden to themselves and their families for the rest of their lives, or rather the descriptions of the witches’ corporeal familiars. These were often a mixture of man and beast, not unlike the oddity that stood alone in the hen coop, bathed in moonlight, like a miniature version of a long-nosed witch swathed in a black cloak. For the bird was alone; the hens were all in their house, huddled together trembling, showing an uncanny fear of the malignant-looking visitant. At least, the innkeeper’s testimony before the court went something along these lines when he was cross-examined about the conduct of the accused, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, during the fortnight he had stayed at the Sommerfugl Inn. No other witnesses were called; the Icelander was clapped in irons forthwith and transferred to a new and worse place, Jailer Rasmussen’s House of Correction. There he discovered for himself that Copenhagen is like Lady Luck: capricious to many, but especially to Jónas.
*   *   *
It is time to introduce a contemporary of Jónas Pálmason the Learned, a man who not only authored the natural history treatise “The account of an animal that falls from the clouds in Norway and rapidly devours the inhabitants’ grass and corn to their great detriment…” but also devoted more time to studying antiquities than any other scholar in the first half of the seventeenth century, earning himself the title of Father of Nordic Antiquarianism. He is perhaps the finest example of a seventeenth-century man of science: a polymath with an insatiable thirst for knowledge who studied most branches of human knowledge; indeed there was no area of learning in which he did not take an interest. Moreover, his work was of such importance for Icelandic literature, and he had such close dealings with Icelanders, that his name deserves to be celebrated. This man was the doctor and natural philosopher Ole Worm.
After the University Council had announced its verdict in the case of Jónas Pálmason the Learned on Wednesday, April 15, 1637, the newly acquitted troublemaker was fetched from his cell beneath the chamber in the Consistorium building and taken with all haste to the laboratory of Preceptor Worm, who had personally directed his trial. Jónas was thus given his freedom within the university’s area of jurisdiction and spared the dungeon, where he should by rights have languished until Christian IV had confirmed his acquittal. Upon arrival they took the Icelander directly to the laundry. There his shackles were removed, he was forcibly deloused and defleaed, and finally dumped in the large cauldron that was in the normal course of things used to boil the slime and feathers off the myriad exotic animal skeletons and bird skins that Dr. Worm acquired for his collection from every corner of the world. After the bath, they found the servant in the rector’s employment who most resembled Jónas in build, and this small potbellied person was ordered to lend the newcomer a complete suit of clean clothes. On returning home to his laboratories, the master of the house found his guest in the kitchen, sitting alone over his food, though with a large audience, as his stay in prison had done nothing to improve his manners. As a puerile prank they had continued to bring him dishes long after he had eaten his fill—amused at the sight of him stuffing his cheeks—for Jónas, who knew no moderation after months of incarceration, fell ravenously upon everything that was laid before him. It was evident to Worm that he would burst if things carried on this way. And so the first encounter between the self-taught Jónas Pálmason and the academic Ole Worm was rather more intimate than the latter had intended. He ordered the suffering man to be taken to the very clinic in which he examined and cured the leading members of Copenhagen society, and when it became apparent that the patient’s banquet would not budge, the doctor administered both emetic and enema. As a result of these vigorous purges, the rotund servant was required to lend Jónas a second suit of clothes, and with the renewed onset of Jónas’s hunger pangs he was brought more food, though this time the meal was conducted under the watchful eye of the physician.
Early next morning Jónas the Learned was summoned to Ole Worm’s study, where he discovered that it was not from benevolence alone that he had been spared a longer sojourn in the Blue Tower. He had no sooner taken a seat facing his benefactor than the latter began to grill him on the most unrelated of topics, though principally on runes and other heathen lore in the sagas of the ancient Icelanders: “Tell me about the mound-dwellers’ script,” “Who was Bragi?” “What does futhark mean?” Jónas grew nervous and feigned ignorance, pretending not to understand the questions even when Worm spoke in Danish, or else answered at random “oh” and “er,” and sometimes “well.” This shilly-shallying lasted until noon, when a man was sent out to fetch Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur, who explained to his father that Worm’s interest in the heathen past was purely scholarly and that nothing he spoke of within the university walls would be used against him. Jónas was not entirely convinced. But Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur had also brought along Jónas’s belongings: his paints, knives, books, and papers—and the Great Auk that he had been feeding over the winter. The collector was delighted to receive a living specimen of this fabled avian oddity and embraced the giver, kissing him repeatedly. Worm apologized to Jónas for having overwhelmed him with questions for which he was unprepared, but he had been so excited to meet the learned Icelander in the flesh that he could not contain himself. He showed Jónas the replies he had received to the numerous letters he had written to his countrymen inquiring after him, and Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur translated them from Latin for the benefit of their subject. Magnús of Laufás, for instance, had written: “From what I have heard, you will shortly receive a visit from the man who is the finest runic scholar among us despite the heavy sentence he has been given for sorcery—he will be traveling on Commissioner Rosenkrantz’s ship, I gather. With him at your side you will have verbal answers to the points that seem unclear in the interpretation and if you wish you can with his help ‘seek gold from the dungheap of Ennius.’ His name is Jónas Pálmason, called ‘the Learned,’ and from what I have been told he is knowledgable on many subjects.” Jónas was standing on tiptoe by the end of the reading. The upshot was that he agreed to remain in lodging with Dr. Worm, while Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur returned to prepare his defense for the imminent hearing of his own appeal.
The days now passed in discourse of runes and old Icelandic poetry. Ole Worm placed many riddles before Jónas on the Eddic and Skaldic compilations of Snorri Sturluson, which he was able to answer straight off. The previous year Worm had published a history of the runic art entitled Danica literatura antiquissima, vulgo Gothica dicta, and he now received confirmation of his suspicions that it contained much that was mistaken or obscure. But the university rector had other duties to attend to besides tapping Jónas’s wisdom, and this gave the latter the chance to observe the work in Worm’s collection of natural history and curiosities, known as the Museum Wormianum. Here the collector had assembled a vast array of organic specimens and objects related to his many fields of study: medicine, antiquarianism, philosophy, the natural history of animals, minerals, and plants, and also works of art and antiquities. An elite team of the rector’s favorite students was busy cataloguing the collection, arranging the objects on shelves and in drawers, hanging them on walls or from ceiling beams, or displaying them on specially built plinths. Here Jónas set eyes for the first time on many marvels that he had hitherto only read about in books: there were large pieces of coral, ostrich eggs, lemming skins, and petrified dragons’ teeth—for the collection was not only the largest of its kind in the world but unusual for being founded on the strictest scientific principles rather than the magpie fascination for glittering objects and childish glee in hoarding that tended to characterize the collections of electors and queens. Ole Worm was preparing to publish a catalogue of the museum’s curiosities, and the students were engaged in recording the names and provenance of the objects according to the curator’s careful system, as well as finding engravings of them in older scientific writings or else sketching pictures of those that had never before appeared in print. Not all the young men were equally skilled draftsmen, and as a result the illustration of the work was progressing more slowly than it should, until one of the students came upon Jónas the Learned sitting alone in the library with his paints, beguiling the time by copying the illustration of the bearded lady in a dress from Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia, which he naturally executed with consummate skill. He was enlisted forthwith to sketch the objects in pencil for others to finish in ink. Worm praised his museum team for their increased productivity and the quality of the drawings, and Jónas got to indulge in his favorite pastime while at the same time examining Worm’s objects and books. And so things continued until the time came to catalogue an object that was kept in a locked cabinet in the natural philosopher’s study. This precious item was borne into the museum with great ceremony, and two lancers from the royal bodyguard no less were set to guard the door. The object was about five ells long, wrapped in a cloth of scarlet velvet with the insignia of Christian IV embroidered on it in gold, and naturally the learned doctor saw personally to its handling and cataloguing, for he had been graciously permitted to borrow it for purposes of research from the king’s private collection. The students crowded around the long examination table to watch as Worm ran his gloved hands over the cloth, deftly drawing it back to reveal a magnificent unicorn’s horn. But this was no ordinary specimen of the shy beast’s cranial ornament, for the horn was fixed in a fragment of skull bone. The spectators gasped: it was most unusual for any remains to be found of a unicorn besides the splendid twisted horn; other bones were extremely rare and scholars were more or less agreed that those found in museums were fake. But here was part of the forehead and crown of the beast, which could therefore be compared with the head of other cloven-hoofed creatures, for the unicorn was generally regarded as being most closely related to the ibex.
Jónas Pálmason the Learned began to laugh and could not stop. His short legs buckled under his quaking body and he dropped to the floor, where he lay hooting as if he were in tears. The students exchanged glances; they were ready for anything with Jónas, who was always mumbling to himself and blurting out non sequiturs, but this wild behavior was both sinister and inappropriate in the presence of the rector and the royal treasure. The guards, who had not encountered Jónas before but considered themselves as adept as university men at identifying lunatics, grew uneasy and tightened their grip on their lances. Everyone waited in suspense for the reaction of the learned and courteous yet severe Preceptor Worm. Leaving the table, he took up position beside the laughing man, inclined his head, and frowned, holding his beard and stroking it down over his chest as if confronted with an unusual form of malady.
After long reflection, the learned doctor straightened up and exclaimed:
“Well, I might have known it…”
And he, too, was seized with uncontrollable laughter. Bending down, he extended a hand and helped Jónas to his feet, declaring between fits of mirth:
“Of course, of course!”
Still chuckling, he ordered his assistants to wrap up the unicorn’s horn and return it to his study. When this had been done, Worm and Jónas retired there themselves, laughing together. The students mimicked their master: “Of course, of course!” though ignorant, naturally, of what had prompted his exclamation. Of one thing they could be sure: their master’s roars of laughter were a sign that he had made a remarkable discovery. Worm was such an inveterate scholar that he was never more amused than when he discovered that he had been wrong.
*   *   *
It would perhaps be putting it too strongly to say that Rector Ole Worm, Doctor Medicinæ in Academia Hafniensi Professor Regius, had been wrong about the existence of the unicorn. In fact, he had for some time been assailed by doubts about the origin and nature of these marvelous horns. He had begun to wonder why so few people had actually set eyes on the beast in modern times; the most recent eyewitness accounts were all over a hundred years old, and there was moreover the conundrum of why nothing was ever found of their bodies apart from the horn. No one doubted the unicorn’s noble nature; it was the touchstone of piety and chastity, as was proved by the fact that only young virgins could tame its savagery, an encounter between ferocity and gentleness that had been depicted in countless paintings, drawings, jewels, and wall hangings. But all the works of art that Worm had examined had one thing in common: judging by the length of the horns that he himself had measured and weighed, the unicorn was always portrayed as too small. The simple experiment of binding an accurate replica of a unicorn horn to a billy goat had proved that to carry a lengthy, twenty-pound horn would require more than just a ferocious nature: the horn would have to sprout from a broad forehead on a large head that sat in turn on a much bulkier body than anyone had ever envisaged, a fact that made the beast’s invisibility even harder to explain. Worm began to make inquiries about the origins of the horns that were known to exist in the treasuries of cathedrals and palaces. It transpired that, with the exception of the unicorn horn encased in the scepter of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England—which she had bought from a Muscovy trader for the price of a castle—the horns were all found in places where Icelanders had studied or traded, or merely stopped for a breather on their journeys to Rome or Jerusalem. The Flemish polymath Goropius Becanus, for example, claimed that the three horns he had examined in Antwerp in the middle of the sixteenth century had all come from Iceland, and Worm was aware that before the introduction of Lutheranism to Iceland, the leading men in that country had been in the habit of sending their sons to Antwerp to study the art of business.
The learned doctor was thrilled by this news, for he had confidants on the volcanic island, old colleagues and students from the University of Copenhagen, who would be able to confirm whether their inclement homeland fostered other land animals besides field mice and Arctic foxes; whether it was possible that unicorns trod the black sand wastes to the accompaniment of rumbling volcanoes and glaciers, and, if not, whether this ivory was found among the other flotsam and jetsam from distant lands that was washed ashore on Iceland’s strands. But his old acquaintances could provide little in the way of answers. They thought it unlikely that such treasures were to be found in Iceland, at least they had never set eyes on them, and despite their repeated promises to ask this or that old fellow with a long memory, when their correspondent reminded them of the matter some months later, they had invariably forgotten all about it. In spite of the countless letters he had sent, he remained none the wiser about the possible export of unicorn horns from the colony in the north. But in addition to his importuning of Icelandic bishops, clerics, and squires—his contacts were all pillars of society—Ole Worm had received permission from the Danish chancellery to perform a chemical analysis on one of the two horns in the possession of the realm. He conducted these experiments in secret as he did not wish to offend his brother-in-law and mentor, Professor Caspar Bartholinus, who in 1628 had published the book De Unicorno in which he proclaimed the healing powers of the horns, which, due to their mysterious origin, were considered an efficacious remedy for epilepsy, melancholy, cramp, gout, and other disorders, in addition to being an infallible antidote against snakebites and earthly poisons such as arsenic and sublimate. Various methods were used to administer the medicine, but the most common was to scrape the horn with a sharp knife and mix the resulting powder with wine, which was then given to the patient to drink. In addition, it was not unknown for the thickest section at the base of the horn to be made into a cup, whose virtue was such that any unadulterated liquid poured into it would instantly be transformed into a healing draft, whereas if the drink was poisoned, a sweat would appear on the cup’s outer rim. But these precious objects were within the means of only the rich and powerful, who were, after all, always falling victim to poison. Ole Worm decided to conduct experiments on these properties: in a back room belonging to the apothecary Woldenberg, he gave healthy kittens arsenic to drink until they began to stagger and bleed from their mouths and nostrils, upon which they were administered unicorn’s horn ground up in milk. They all died, as did the pigeons fed on corn soaked in chloride of mercury. But what the ever-curious Wormius did learn from his experiments with the horns was that in their internal structure and substance they resembled ivory rather than rhinoceros horn. His researches progressed no further until Jónas Pálmason the Learned set eyes on the royal treasure, a unicorn’s horn set in a fragment of skull, and sank to the floor, overcome with hilarity.
Once Jónas and Worm had recovered from their laughter and refreshed themselves with black-currant juice (good for the kidneys) and spiced loaf (good for the bowels), it became apparent that Jónas was no less accomplished a natural historian than he was a runic scholar, and an experienced ivory-smith into the bargain, who had been engraving pictures on whale ivory and walrus tusks ever since he was young. He revealed that the object wrapped in velvet, far from being what it purported to be, was the tusk of the savage whale known as the narwhal, or “corpse whale” because of its taste for drowned sailors, and Worm duly recorded the object in his workbook as “Narwhal’s Tusk.” The Icelanders had first encountered these horrid beasts when they founded a colony in Greenland around the year Anno Domini 1000 and soon began to export the tusks, labeling them as “unicorn horns” according to the latest fashion. The Greenlanders and their middlemen in west Iceland grew fat on the profits of this secret commerce, which ensured the Greenlandic colony an advantageous balance of trade with foreign lands as well as laying the foundation for the wealth of the most powerful families in Iceland. The trade continued uninterrupted until the Greenlandic colony was abandoned a hundred years ago, in the year of our Lord 1540. Narwhal tusks were now a rare commodity in the country, but people could expect to get a high price for them as long as belief in the existence of the unicorn persisted, so Dr. Worm must promise not to tell his correspondents in Iceland who had spilled the beans. This promise was easily extracted. Jónas drew diagrams for Worm showing how the fish lay in the sea, wielding its tusk like a lance, and a comparison of these with the royal specimen convinced Worm that it was a narwhal skull with a tusk and nothing more. And so that day in the Museum Wormianum the unicorn’s fate was sealed: a year after his meeting with Jónas Pálmason, Ole Worm published an epoch-making article on the similarity between narwhal tusks and unicorn horns. For the next three decades the brightest luminaries of Western philosophy wrangled over the existence of the fantastic horned beast with the goat’s beard, horse’s abdomen, pig’s tail, antelope’s head, and elephant’s feet, until the skeptics finally prevailed. Upon which the price of unicorn horns plummeted. This result was a remote but sweet revenge for Jónas the Learned, since many of his chief persecutors in Iceland were descended from unicorn merchants.
The professor’s delight in his new amanuensis was such that he began to make plans for Jónas’s permanent residence in Copenhagen. After consultation with Reverend Pálmi Gudmundur, who had received a satisfactory verdict in his lawsuit and was now able to return to Iceland to take up the position of curate at Hjaltastadur, it was decided that instead of going home with his son, Jónas should send for his wife, Sigrídur, to come to Denmark. Jónas was sixty-three years old by now and she fifty-seven; he would help Worm translate ancient texts and draw objects from his collection when required; she meanwhile could assist in the kitchens. A decent private chamber would be found for them in the upper servants’ quarters and they would finally be allowed to live in peace after twenty years of being hounded from pillar to post. Jónas Pálmason’s breast swelled with hope: although he himself had not spent any time out of doors in Copenhagen, Sigga would enjoy the novelties on display; the fireworks, the court finery, and the elegant buildings would be balsam to her weary eyes.
On the May evening when he and Rector Worm shook hands on the plan, Jónas took from his pouch a small, dice-shaped box of seal bone, which contained his rarest possession, a blood-black crystal, yellow at the edges, which was at once a work of nature and a holy mystery. It was a kidney stone that had become trapped in Bishop Gudbrandur Thorláksson of Hólar’s private member, which Jónas had with his own hand removed from said member according to the instructions preserved in the saga of the medieval doctor Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson. Having split the penis like an uncooked sausage, he picked the stones out of the urinary tract before sewing the whole thing up again. The cleric’s stone-afflicted body had given birth to three crystals, one of which Jónas had quietly pocketed and kept by him ever since. The bishop’s gratitude had secured Pálmi Gudmundur a place at the school of divinity in Hólar (with the help of a document in Jónas’s possession that proved that the bishop’s son-in-law, Ari Magnússon of Ögur, had violated the king’s law). Now, however, Jónas made a gift of the kidney stone to his friend Ole Worm in return for providing a roof over his and Sigrídur’s heads.
The following day a handwritten sealed writ arrived from His Majesty King Christian IV, in which the king concurred with the University Council’s verdict that Jónas Pálmason was not a practitioner of the black arts. Instead of acquitting him unconditionally, however, His Majesty referred the case to the court of the Althing at Thingvellir in Iceland and bade the Icelanders themselves formally revoke the sentence in the presence of the defendant.
Jónas the Learned was going home.

Copyright © 2008, 2011 by Sjón