letters from the north

Folder A:080, læg 3

This essay was written after I came across a diary of a Danish woman in Greenland- #A:080, læg 3, June 1904. The writing is fictional while trying to capture the complexity of her situation- a complete foreigner negotiating her new surrounding.
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She is a woman in Greenland strolling amongst dogs and feces. Her husband brought her there and her children cause her to stay. She mends their socks when big toes force themselves free. She gathers ice for water when the pipes are too weak against the weather. At times she mistakes the undulation of the ice for the waves of the cornstalks in October’s wind. She wonders if she misses Denmark. But she can’t remember, as if a northern breath has swept it clean like the fjord in winter, jagged and crying.

She writes home of the animals she has seen: the walrus and its bulging eyes, the seal and its funny hands. The birds migrating in the summer along the cliffs, the eggs they hatch and the eggs that she takes from them. The alpine vegetation she read about living in the Swiss Alps, the willow and the lichen, but she observes them growing here.

She writes about longing: A fresh apple eaten in October picked straight from the tree in Jutland. A cool June rain harkening the grass to reach for the heavens. An even winter sky that allows only a few hours of darkness to cradle slumber and a summer sky that calms its sun long enough to mimic night and nestle the body into rest. She ponders her aloneness when her husband and children have found sleep and she is awake to hear their breathing. She never knew that so many could learn to breathe in the same rhythm.


And she apologizes, for not being more poetic, for too few letters, for complaining, for being too emotional and vulnerable. Greenland is not for the weak, she tries to explain but her Danish handwriting seems foreign to her, out of place and forced in this land of popping consonants. She apologizes for sounding like she yearns for sympathy or a return to Denmark. She is not lying when she writes these things. But she wonders if language will really resolve the complexities that entwine her feelings.

Yet, they do not understand. They read and discuss what she writes, over lunch and dinner, during tea and coffee, when helping each other in the garden, before falling asleep at night. They discuss each sentence, each word and adjective she has used to assemble Greenland into a fixed meaning for them. They wonder why she has told them of so many intimacies. They wonder if she will return as their daughter or if they have lost her to the frozen ice and breath, her constant friends. In their dreams they construct her world, adding blues when she really sees reds and golds, placing feasts with wine on her table where there is none - no trade ship passing to deliver such superb items.



Her radius is simple and she often desires to gaze beyond doors left ajar and condensation on windows. It is always a crevasse or a mountain or a river that obstructs her inland sleepwalking. Winter storms snuff out all inner horizon lines and bring bored visitors to the house for coffee and sugar. The constant rumbling of the fledgling ice falling from the summer icebergs frightens her from wandering too far away. It accompanies her children’s voices threading their way out the school’s windows, around the speckled houses and church, galloping like horses down the hill and into her ears while she sits with her lady friends discussing Sunday’s psalm. She falls back, synchronizing her laugh to the beat of the conversation. Yearning to locate herself amongst the other Danish women finding life in Greenland, she finds only fur-covered ghosts pulling her away to an unknown Greenland.

She sees them in the corners of her house when she prepares dinner. They seek her eye contact and she feigns cataracts. They
brush past her, offering advice though she asks for none. It is time for the white whales to come, it is time for the narwhals to gather, they say. They tell her stories of Sila deep in the sea and her lovely hair scattered with lice. Who will comb her hair now, they ask her? She believes that if she responds to them, she will never see Denmark again. Sometimes she can smell them, their sealskins and hair, dog fur fringed mittens and small bone amulets. She blames her children, sending them to their bath in hope that it will cleanse the house.


And she writes home, to Denmark from Greenland. From a world that exists nowhere else, ever. From a blue shuttered house and polar bear rug. Frozen ink on a winter’s day that she carries to the kitchen, sitting near the stove. Each piece of paper fills with her hopes and her past week, her children and her husband, her neighbors and their families, her weather and her boots, her skirts and her timeline for when she will return to see them again.

They are old. Their waiting wanes. Her letters arrive to an empty window facing Northwest, staring out for her ship, for her stormy return. They fall into their graves looking up towards the sky imagining hare and gerfalcon, ice crystals and green glaciers. Imagining her seated by a fog-filled window waiting for their letters discussing summer jams and autumn rains. But all is too late. The boat cannot break through the early ice. The exchange is not made. The letters are thrown overboard because of failure and embarrassment. Falling to the bottom, they become lost and tangled in Sila’s hair.

And she gives in and dives down deep pushing past seals and whales to comb out their words.