The Iceland Diaries, Part Six
I would love to have talked with them now. Imba, by contrast, was more about now than then. She was living in her updated present, and happily so. She had always had a bright smile and it had not faded with the world. In winter, for many years, she has been a schoolteacher to the younger students at the local boarding school, Varmalandskola. It is where I addressed my letters to her for years. (Gudlaugur taught history there, at that same school.) She must be a wonderful teacher. Even at fifteen, she was confident and capable. She could mend a fence or ride her beloved horses bareback at high speed. But she was never boastful. Just extremely capable. And happy. And kind. Her white-blonde hair was gray now, and cut short but her beauty shown like a diamond.
The fragrance of pancakes and the hot griddle filled her new kitchen. She worked swiftly, stacking the cakes on a plate as she went. She asked questions as she worked. I had brought her a photocopy of my Iceland album, all the photos of my time spent here. When I was getting ready to come, I realized that, of course, she had never seen these photos of long ago. I made it into a scrapbook and included photos of my home. I had also brought Hershey bars and Vermont cheddar. And my books and a Yankee magazine. I remembered how they loved American things. She had mentioned the day before that she had traveled to Cuba and to Africa, two very interesting choices in my opinion. In the 1970s, I had tried to convince her to come to visit me. I even once offered to pay her way, though I didn’t really have the money for that but I really wanted to have her come. Now she chose Cuba and Africa, two hot places. I asked why. Cuba, she said, sounded warm and interesting and she had had a lovely time, enjoyed it very much. Africa? She has a friend who speaks Swahili (there are so many surprises in Iceland!) who invited her to go with her to Kenya. “I thought if I were going to go, I should go with someone who spoke the language,” she explained. “I would get so much more out of it.”
I wondered if her experience living with me had any influence on that observation. She was finishing the pancakes. My friends had not yet arrived from their night’s lodging. She came over to the table and sat down with me.
“Tell me, what is slavery?” she asked.
Certainly not a question I had ever been asked before. Certainly not a question that I welcomed. I told her about the cotton mills and the large plantations and the need for labor inside and outside the house. As I spoke, I realized, for the first time, that there are countries where one does not have to explain the reason for the existence of something called slavery. There are countries that don’t even know the word. But Imba had visited places in Africa where she had been shown places where children were taken on ships to America. Nothing like that had ever come ashore in Iceland. Labor here, now and in the past, was done by the people of Iceland or not done at all. I explained that it was tied to the system of capitalism, the need to make a profit, keeping production costs low. I felt like I was digging a ditch into which I would have liked to disappear.
She followed this up with a question about the Indians, delivered in the same earnestly curious way. Who were these people who once lived on our land and now were gone? Where did they go? And were they really bad people? I remembered that some of the television shows we once watched together so long ago had stories of cowboys and Indians. And the Indians were not portrayed very favorably. Oh, how tied we all are to our past, even if it is not our own or the result of our intentions. This is our national heritage. It reminded me of the black man who had wanted to sue us all for having owned slaves, even if we or any of our ancestors had never owned one. But we are all responsible for that past, in some unnameable way. Now Imba was gently seeking answers to these simple questions. And I had none. Only to say that the Indians, for the most part, were good people, peaceful souls who were only defending their own territory, which any one of us would have done. And in so doing, acquiring a reputation for being savages.
And what about these places called reservations, she wanted to know. They were not on good land, she said, why did they do that? I could see she was not going to allow me to escape. I had never before been asked to account for the ways of my country in quite this way. Just then Gretchen and Tom and Enid drove in.
Imba put everything I loved for breakfast on the table. Could she possibly remember? The custard made from the milk of a cow that had just given birth, which has an indescribable flavor. Unnur often made it for me, with a special smile. Hard boiled eggs. A brown bread unique to Iceland. A big wedge of cheese. So much it was hard to choose what to eat. We ate until we were satisfied.
We had only been in the country for two days and already I had seen and heard all that I had hoped for. Frodastadir. Imba. Torvi. Hvammur. Hvitarsidu. More than I had hoped for. And I had tasted the custard, the lamb, the red cabbage, the potatoes. But this was just the beginning of the trip and we had 800 miles to cover before flying home again. My friends were anxious to set forth. I would have been happy to stay there with Imba for the duration, even if it meant explaining why America had slaves and what on earth they did to the Indians.