The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Opening the Hump


On the homefield surrounding the church were skin tents, the hairy side turned out, and in them huddled foreign surveyors, sweaty but sweet-looking after their long workday. I went from tent to tent and gave them crullers and shortbread biscuits with unimpressive buttercream, but they found them quite good and asked for more. The church bells rang and I stood there shuffling my feet in the tent opening, didn’t want to get to mass late yet couldn’t tear myself away, wanted to breathe in the odor of sweat a bit longer. I spoke to them in gestures about crullers but it seemed as if we were talking about something else entirely. I couldn’t figure out what it was but felt it coming closer and closer to me until I turned on my heel, didn’t let it touch my body until much later.

I ran up to the church, far too late, and my breasts, which had just started to spring out, hurt a bit, so I held them in my hands to dull the pain. The dog fawned on me and I imagined myself as an adult and the images passed by quickly, around and around.

Inside the church the sexton was placing the cassock over the priest’s shoulders but didn’t manage to pull it down below his collar before the priest started for the pulpit. Then the sexton realized the consequences: the hump escaped no one’s notice and in his shock he turned the page to the wrong prayer. This was during the midsummer haymaking, but he read in a shaky voice: Soon it will be Christmas. Doubly ashamed, he bent his head and closed the hymnbook. Some of the churchgoers curled up in shame because the parliamentarian for the district was in attendance, others turned away, suppressing laughter, while those unfamiliar with the place made little of the incident and continued to bend their heads in prayer out of old habit.

When Christianity started the prayer posture wasn’t so closed; people didn’t curl up like shrimp, but instead held their hands up in an open position of awe rather than submission and fear. Suffering is a way of life, not its goal, forget this not, faithful servant. Do not crumple yourselves up in your canned suffering and shame; instead laugh at how the venerable collar of authority is changed into a clown’s ruffle and hump at the slightest rattling!


At midsummer I roamed the moors searching for seven wildflowers to place under my pillow, since according to my grandmother’s superstition, you dreamt the person whom you would love the most. It took me many hours to find the flowers because in the middle of June it was still quite cold up in the highlands and I didn’t want just dandelions. I didn’t think they were a good sign.


He always had me lie down on a cot and talk about what was on my heart. When he felt that I was straying from the topic, being too conscious of definitions rather than limiting myself to my neurosis, he pressed the thumb of one hand onto my neck as he held his cigar with the other, and I would sink back down into the abyss. It was at just such a moment that I started questioning the medical value of his methods. I started to suspect him of enjoying my misery and decided to play a trick on him. I asked him to push harder and even harder and he stuck his cigar in his mouth and pressed down on me with both hands and finally lay on top of me with all his weight. Then I pretended to recall a horrific event from my youth and at the same time slipped my hand onto his back and scratched at his warts. I kept talking about dreams in which I gave horses bowler hats and the desk turned into a double bed that I jumped on gleefully. He pretended not to notice that I’d crossed the line, or was he maybe trying to recall whether he’d taken account of such overbearing behavior in his writings? He was as if rigid for a long moment, obviously no longer listening, and a shudder of bliss passed through me at having managed to bother him, who was the very picture of self-assurance. But my bliss didn’t last long. He had made a decision about his theory, or was it perhaps in a trance that he started licking my neck like a dog? I was disgusted, but then realized his strength and the validity of his methods, understood that he was helping me to face my anger. I allowed him to keep licking my head and told about more dreams.


At Chinese New Year on the square downtown I picked up a Tibetan doll from an ink pond. It was all wrapped up and swollen from weeping, tiny and orange. I stood in the pond up to my knees and around me sailed paper flowers that had opened up gradually in the wetness, dusk was falling and fireworks flew through the air. I decided to take the doll back to its home, put it inside my jacket.


But then I no longer trusted my judgement and feared to go out, was afraid of confusing dreams and waking, of accidentally stepping into the holes of the dream, blue by day, and getting wet. But that seemed to be the only way to get rid of the stories, to go out, to meet people, ask them to fill my ears with just something, nonsense and rye-bread crumbs if there weren’t anything better.


Sitting opposite me in a tram that wound its way slowly down the bank of the Danube River was a woman in a sorry state, telling me the story of her life. It was no war story, but was so poignant that she wept constantly. And the smell of urine was so strong that I wanted badly to change seats, but I sat there glued to mine because I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. I may not have cared how the story ended, if it in fact ended, but I found it interesting to be perched on the uncomfortable boundary between compassion and disgust. But then the urine odor was never going to leave my nostrils, as if it had been burned into my mucous membranes, and the next day I thought I had peed my pants. And though I realized quickly that that wasn’t the case, shame had settled in me and I couldn’t pull myself together during the day…


I went to a bathhouse and met a dentist and asked him to tell me something fun. But he didn’t want to talk, just stuck his tongue in my mouth, grabbed my hair and pulled me by it along the water and pressed his knee into my back. I scrambled onto the bank and went dizzily into the dressing room. At the mirror stood the criminal investigator, the same who had questioned me a short time before. He was taking off his uniform and asked me to scratch his back, yet to be careful not to scratch his tattoo with my long nails. In the mirror he asked why I was so blue, as if there were ink all over me, and I said I’d been trying to draw out my fear like a bruise with glass cupolas but it hadn’t succeeded. Then he put back on his uniform, put me under his jacket and brought me home.


Anointed me with aromatic balms. As you anoint a body for burial, at least in lots of books. Filthy little girls become spotless virgins in the side-tents of bathhouses where oil is poured from amphorae and they emerge fragrant, prepared to become women.


Carved instruments, instruments exhausted from weeping, they no longer need to weep…. To love calmly, that’s something entirely new. No languishing or boredom…

And it’s not until one’s in this calm that something new can finally start happening. The lion is transformed into a camel and the camel into a child. A more delicate pattern comes into being, sometimes a bit neurotic, the outbreaks sewn with threads from a doll from the State Puppet Theater, wearing an old-fashioned fulled jacket. But she herself has flown away like a helium balloon that someone has lost hold of at a festival. To lose hold of yourself, if you’ve ever actually had a grip. The laughter then becomes more unlearned, the lust more pictorial, the skin softer. The skin covers the space; it’s stretched between us and on it are tooth marks. So incredibly nice to bite. Good to drum on stretched skin and let imaginary streams of milk drip onto it, causing a deep but childish sound: it’s a baroque prelude. Bite into the skin of a fig inside a book, in deeply breathed lust, having opened many compartments, further and further in. After getting there it’s good to play a little joke. To make it look, when the lust is at its peak, as if you’ll stop in the intolerable serenity of a guest who comes at the wrong time, serve tea and buns on a tray.

No, the timing of the tantra is absolutely precise, as when you clip together pieces of recordings in a radio studio and feel a tingling in your jaw when one of the pieces merges with another at the right second. It’s not until you stop seeing one piece at a time and feel how one leads to another that time is created. A time of love, a time of music, a time of language.


Understanding reaches only a certain point in every round of concentration. Then you’ve got to give in, let yourself fade away, and try once more. The trick is to pinpoint the time of the cycle, not to try to solve the mystery in the undertow. And to understand that everything needs time; you have to position yourself, warm up. The pushiness and arrogance of the morning come with condemning yourself for not understanding what you understood yesterday when you were perfectly focused, warmed up.

On my way to the library, early in the morning, at the front of the automatic train, I looked into the tunnel at the little white bulbs and ultraviolet lamps. They’re the ones that probably tell the train when to stop and when to proceed. When the body hasn’t yet heated up and it functions slowly so early in the morning, it’s good to go fast in vehicles.

In the evening when I want to stop thinking, stop working, I can often gear my brain down and it keeps going automatically, focusing on whatever it might be: a description of Mr. Dolphin in a piano piece by Skriabin, the theory of Dr. Know-It-All on the actions of tea leaves on the liver. But that doesn’t mean trying to stop thinking one two and three, no, not when obstinacy has taken over. Then you’ve got to work hard to wear yourself out gradually, as when you take a trout from a river, set the reel on “Exhaust” and turn your mind to something else and then something else again, until you just sit and stare into space and are completely calm, no, not insane, I think, just calm and tired. Listen to music without understanding how it has come into being, without paging for the hundredth time through the history of music. Take a dip in a pool full of toner and let the sounds accumulate…


It’s growing late. From the hump grow wings, as when orchids blossom slowly but surely. I sit in a room with a stamp set and stamp pad, stamp and stamp, press a little brand into the warm sealing liquid red as blood; the seal of love. Then staple and staple and tape together the spine with band-aids…


Translated by Philip Roughton. Featured image: Pulliciniello, the Commedia dell’Arte servant, engraving by Jacques Callot. Second image © Christian Boltan.

Oddný Eir (1972) is an Icelandic author whose novel Land of Love and Ruins won the EU Prize for Literature and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. In addition to publishing four novels and several books of poetry and essays, she has worked in the art world as a lecturer and gallerist, has received a grant to study archives and museums in Iceland, has been an environmental activist, and has collaborated with the musical artist Björk in composing lyrics for her albums Biophilia and Vulnicura. She has received advanced degrees in political philosophy from the University of Iceland and The Sorbonne. Oddný Eir lives in the Icelandic countryside, by the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. More from this author →