If, off that cliff, you dogpaddled for days, nay years, due south strafing shipping lanes, you’d brush no other landmass until Antarctica: hobbling from waves threshing through the creases between rocks onto the hem of nothingness. Save a Russian research station or, depending not on the season you beach, snow. Coolies of waves shouldering plastics, hollow Chilean casks, bottle-notes set adrift by beaten mariners.
“I see you’ve been reading,” she says.
“Sorry?” I answer.
“Woolf, by the sink. Are those rocks in your housecoat pockets or are you just unhappy to see me?” She laughs.
“Yes, I’m reading her,” I say.
I hadn’t seen her during my weeks here at the lighthouse. She tells me that she stays on occasion, and that her name is Svava. Svava grants the room twelve beats of quietude, dips her reed fingers into the pocket of her doily-cuffed frockcoat, produces a hand-worn pebble, two decades from being dust at this rate, knock-knocks it on the pine dining table, letting it rock on its apex to stillness. I reach for it.
That noon I napped with Woolf’s book butterflied over my eyes. When I awoke, my boots were next to me and I was covered with a felt throw. Folding off the throw, grains of lavic sand hailed the immediate floor. Piles of it for such a small throw. I put To the Lighthouse on the sea chest that doubled as coffee table and hand-cupped the sand into a dune on the floor.
A hundred pages in I began to graph Mrs. Ramsay’s entourage. At first a dimpled list, then a pie chart, a Venn diagram, and finally a three-dimensional planetary mobile of crunched paper balls rotating around the centripetal seersuck of Mrs. Ramsay. Each character’s prospective paper ball supplied with a diameter dictated by the number of times they were “named” in the novel, and then divided by Mrs. Ramsay’s emotional aptitude to “suffer them.” Each ball set a distance from Mrs. Ramsay that accurately illustrated the character’s emotional thrust, their swimming upstream toward her conscious landing net. Needless to say, this was not at all pointless.
Svava kick-knocks at the door, which I open to her, her hands full: two hares, a half-dozen puffins, a school of rabbit fish strung from one fist, and a bucket with a slab of minke whale in the other. She is wearing black sheep chaps, jodpurs beneath, knee-high riding boots, a too-tight lopapeysa sweater. Pilot goggles high on her forehead holding her bangs back. I can hear her horse’s front hooves bicycling on the spot of its tether. A rough-stocked crossbow strapped over her shoulder. I was hoping she would show up in a bulging housecoat.
“If it’s not forbidden, I’m having a few in tonight.”
“No bother, really,” I answer.
Plucking the puffins, she asks how I feel about Woolf’s character Mr. Tansley.
“He’s a gem, a real doppelgänger of Mr. Ramsay.”
“Are you shit-faced?” she asks.
She slits the fur jump suit of one of the hares and yanks it down to its knob knees, its sinews frozen white falls over the red rivulets of inanimate musculature. This makes me queasy. I ask if I can help, but Svava acts as if she doesn’t hear me and continues her prep work. “It’s remarkable how Woolf’s stream of consciousness is really only the sea that seeps into a ship. It’s everything, yet not enough to sink us. I wonder what else could have been plumbed had Woolf been on peyote or at an ekg in the throws of a good bit of head.” She continues, “You know the whole book is modernist realism, a jab at getting it right, human minds that is, women’s minds mostly. And to get there, to that ‘real,’ Woolf flanks realism via abstraction.”
“Yes, I think . . .” I false-start.
“Do you mind staying upstairs when they arrive?” she cuts in.
“Um, yes, sure. I mean no, of course, why not.”
Lying under my paper mobile, I give it a whirl: Mr. Tansley, Mr. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, and all the rest in leashed yet willy-nilly collisions and concentric scrubs, rubbing together to let out a sound, a paper thrum that chafes like the scratch of static out of a shortwave. Static on your televison that’s left over from the big bang expanding outward and elasticized inward, and this, I am convinced, is the novel’s tension. A Sunday storm kept the Ramsays from the lighthouse. Likely a dropcloth rain, a pro-active wind. Or is this “weather” just the unnatural projection of the ever-cautious and caustic Mr. Ramsay’s psychic feedback colliding with Mrs. Ramsay’s candid caricatures, as if the lapping white noise of the novel represents a collective consciousness of its characters who choir: We all live the surprise results of a decrepit dream.
I hear the guests arriving, greeting Svava in a train of blessuð, blessuð. Corks being drawn, a sheepdog chatting, the delta of voices backwashing the dining room. An hour in, not so much a knock on my door as the sound of cold cut ham sliding down. And there he is, one of Svava’s company, so pale the sun couldn’t touch him for fear of its own destruction. Wreathed in an earthen waft he stands with a platter of scattered meats before me: his tuberculoid hips, culottes and high woollen socks, the erect collar of his threadbare dress shirt. Dried sea-vine twine wrapping his wrists. “Hungry?” he asks, his English breaking from the gate only to wait for a last-place finish, the first syllable still on its tiptoes. I am sure he was the one who had worn the hole in the Oof the welcome mat (velkomin) in the mudroom of the lighthouse.
“No, but I’ll try some,” I say.
Seeing Woolf’s book in my lap he asks if I had read Fanny Howe’s poem “Doubt.” No, I hadn’t.
“Well, she says that Woolf ‘made a superhuman effort at creating a prose-world where doubt was a mesmerizing and glorious force.’”
“I see,” I say.
“Woolf, ‘a maestro of lyric resistance, was frightened by Freud’s claustrophobic determinism since she had no defense against it.’”
“Who does?” I chew on a cracker with seared Gouda and puffin. Svava had obviously told him of my doppelgänger hypothesis.
With an about-face he stammers, “Enjoy the rotten shark.”
I’d like to say that everything during those weeks at the lighthouse of Dyrhólaey worked in overexposed photos; is that so wrong? Downstairs, someone had taken the decorative lute off the wall and, without tuning it, played while the many singers scrummed around the player in a variety of pitches. Icelandic folk songs and translated top-twenty hits droning all evening—the mast and barrel waft of their music through the Lurid Zone of a sunny sub-Arctic night. Only when the light at the house’s top defibrillated itself back to life did I sleep, sleep under the white noise of its rotisserie moving counter-clockwise to my mobile.
I doubt I read To the Lighthouse in the lighthouse of Dyrhólaey. I doubt Svava had, nor her pale buddy for that matter. Reading it seems too light a touch, primitive. Morning had broken and the fried-egg sun ran across the ocean. The usual eyeshadow sky of Iceland at this time of year had disappeared, just one cotton-swab cloud out to sea heading for Antarctica. The entire lighthouse is spotless, dishes done, no sign of everyone. But the walls are sopped with the ghosts of their beachstone xylophone, singing, and lute. In the lamp capsule at the top of the lighthouse a rectangular package is wrapped with my name on it written in red crayon along with the phrase: “What whiles in the wild waiting on a witness.” Doubt, I mouth. The package contains two oil paintings. The backs of both initialed L.B. The first, a landscape with one wind-retarded tree off-centre. The other one, a jumble of drips in the left corner with a long, shaky red line leading out, toward the upper-right corner, across the baby-blue canvas. This line is the promontory of Mr. Ramsay’s last sail to the lighthouse, as he read Woolf’s very book, his son at the helm, his daughter dragging her hand in the sea next to two fisherman, onward past the vanish.
Jeramy Dodds lives in Calgary, Alberta. His first collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds, was published by Coach House Books.