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A Girl on the Hunt

October 16, 2017 byRebekka Rafnsdóttir

We are pleased to share Rebekka Rafnsdóttir's essay "A Girl on the Hunt," the inaugural recipient of the Bette Howland Nonfiction Prize. The prize, given annually to a student at the New School in New York City, was established by Honor Moore, who first met Bette Howland in 1977: "​In the winter of 1977, I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time. I had just had my first work—a memoir-as-play called Mourning Pictures—go public on Broadway.... The play had been a hit in a Massachusetts summer theater and closed quickly in New York, and though it was to be published in an anthology, I was having a hard time emerging from what was an up-down whiplash experience. At MacDowell I met a woman writer about eight years older than me—at the time, she seemed much older!—who had just published a memoir of her time in a mental hospital—the book was called W-3. We became friends—long talks in what I remember as her very dark writing studio—her typewriter in a pool of light. She was the first woman writer to encourage me."

I was brought up on the northernmost tip of the Earth. The environment is rough and cold there, barren yet somehow truthful. It gives you the truth bare, as if there is nothing further to add. It just is like frost that never melts, doesn’t grow and never dies. Forever constant change eternal. Where sky meets the ocean, it seems like the horizon reaches further than elsewhere. As if there is more spaciousness there, endless space, the sky so vast, the stars ever present. No boundaries in sight. But there is always a certain type of coldness, whether it be summer or winter. It is the type of coldness that radiates from emptiness. There is an abundance of nothing all around. The wild, and what scarce life inhabits it, has still been left undisturbed.

I remember walking around the raw expanse of nothing as a child with my father, looking for birds to shoot and eat. We walked for hours trying to spot the white ptarmigan in the blinding white snow. Its red beak would usually betray it and I knew exactly how to position my crosshairs a little bit in front of my target as it flew away. I also knew I shouldn’t stand too close as I pulled the trigger, so the shotgun wouldn’t shred the bird to pieces. We would count down if we encountered a group. Deciding who shoots which in the moment. Shooting together at the count of three.

I always felt a little bit sad after each successful hit, but the sadness was overtaken by the joy of making my dad proud. There weren't many people living in this strange place in Iceland. We had to be careful to take note of landmarks, so we wouldn’t get lost and freeze to death. Especially if there was heavy snowfall, as there usually was. Sometimes we heard gunshots in the distance and quickly readied our guns in case the flock had been ushered our way. My father would make sure we honored his personal rule of shooting only as much as we would need for our family. No one was hungry in this place, except maybe for the occasional fox, our greatest competitor. The other men in our village tried to shoot as much as they could, to impress one another. They would comment and talk among themselves about my father bringing me, a girl, to hunt with him.

My hands were cold. We never wore gloves after my dad’s friend once got his gloves stuck on the trigger. When his partner tried to get the gloves loose, he got shot by the shotgun, by accident. His partner was someone he had been playing shooting games with since he was a child, when they pretended to fall slowly to the ground. It wasn't part of the plan for the game to end like that. But he died just the same. Like the ptarmigans.

When I grew older I returned home to shoot with my dad. I came home with bruises and marks on my right shoulder, from the recoil of the old gun. I was way too young to have a license to shoot, let alone drive the jeep. But that was what my dad wanted me to do. So I did it.

As we continued our search for prey, snowflakes began to slowly fall from the sky, moving in ways which implied they couldn’t be bothered with this plane of existence, doing nothing but falling down toward the earth. The snowflakes made an impression on me. I was fascinated by their effortless movements through air, completely unfazed by winds as they made their final descent.

I watched as snowdrift formed mounds oddly resembling the contours of the underlying terrain as I remembered it to be. The landscape I’m so familiar with enveloped in white powder, shapeshifting with each layer of fresh ice crystals. As I stood there watching myself wearing three layers of woollen sweaters to keep myself warm, the shapes seemed to echo into one another. Time passed, bringing more layers. Layers and layers of white snow.

No snowflake will ever share the same trajectory.

Those moments, when you are truly captivated by something, I feel like I’m as close to the core of my being as possible. I feel comfortably lost. Lost within the triumvirate of environment, emotion, and core. Being lost is also being contained within the three: mind, soul, and body. Most experiences can only appeal to one of those aspects of yourself at a time.

Now my father goes hunting alone. I’m not home anymore. I live abroad. Abroad is a vague term in the North. I send him postcards from tourist shops, and their pictures become like one of those landmarks we used to pinpoint our location while hunting for ptarmigans, in the blinding snow. He imagines stories behind the images printed on the postcard. Stories that take place elsewhere.

Although I remember experiencing sadness after each successful hit, I never fully realized I was taking a life. Perhaps I lied to myself. I distanced myself from the ugly truth, similar to when I’m exposed to tragic news stories on television, taking place elsewhere. The real is unreal. Until I have a moment of revelation. This particular brief moment when you suddenly see something and understand it.

I saw myself holding a bird in my hands. It was dead but still full of life. Maybe similar to when I am almost asleep. Its body kept shaking. And I was shaking it even harder, so it wouldn't continue moving inside my backpack. I didn’t want it to keep reminding me that I had killed it just a few minutes ago. Its head fell off as I shook it a little too hard. I held its head in my palm.

…and then I saw it and it saw me and then I saw myself seeing it.

The predator holding its prey in her hands. I saw life turn still. Premature death. I wonder if the ptarmigan also saw itself lying there, dead.

The death of the bird became real to me. Before, I had only understood death by the word death. But now it had escaped the word, and there it was right in front of me.

Maybe death is just a space without a center. Maybe it is an abundance of nothing, similar to the one we find in the North.

Forever constant change eternal. Appearing as something still. Like drums that go so fast that they become ambient, slow.

I told the ptarmigan that I was sorry, and asked forgiveness. I told it that I didn't mean to end its life, I was just going to kill it and then eat it, as usual. I was so surprised, not just because of the fact that I had taken its life, but also for the reason that I felt not just sad, but also happy and free. I felt like I was free from death. It was no longer behind me, waiting to get me—as I hid behind the stone right before I shot her.

One day we will all die. I had never fully understood these words.

The knowledge of death had always been there. We are going to die. Yes, I understood what I had said. Ever since I learned that God was slightly different from Santa Claus and that everybody was different. Imperfect and would eventually die. But I had lacked an experience like this to enable me to process this information. Similar to large numbers that I can read but not fathom in any way. And death’s counterpart, life—was not helping me gain understanding.

Now the bird had given it to me. I had arrived at an understanding, just like that. And now I understood what I had been doing with the shooting. My father was still killing the birds to eat them, as usual.

Thank you, bird. You sweet, sweet little bird.

Now I feel like the ptarmigan is part of me. Just like all my loved ones that have passed. When I go for a walk, I talk to them, and then I try to listen.

I looked with my contracting and expanding pupils into the still eyes of the ptarmigan. And then decided to snap a picture of it.

Within my personal space, the moment before a photograph is taken becomes convoluted with the infinite expanse of everything outside. When I decide to snap a picture of the ptarmigan, I realize that it’s an attempt to freeze that moment in time—as my finger presses down on the button I create stability in my world, equilibrium. The image of the bird, however, is not a monument to a moment in time. It becomes a thing of its own—containing new truths and projections—just like text on white paper. New knowledge.

With the photograph, I felt like I had managed to kill the bird again. I had taken its life for the second time.

The moment of capture is more than a cross-section of life. It contains everything that came to pass before and after. It is not a moment in time, only a moment in its own being. It is almost as if the moment itself knew I would take the shot at just the right moment—or did I take it of my own free will? I guess it doesn’t matter. If I wouldn’t have taken the picture, it would still have existed as an image not taken, a forgotten angle of infinite possibilities.*

The photograph creates its own independent story, its own life, stories, reflections from myself and others. It is a memory I choose to remember. The picture somehow manages to contain all of infinity within the limits of the photographic medium. Still gives me no answers.

The photograph is not a place. It’s part of who I am. The way I see it dictates what I see in it. The longer I stare at it, I start to see parts of my own being, fully conscious as I look at myself. I see it with my mind and see time, then I see it with my body and see space. My consciousness sees the bird, my mind sees a photograph, my body experiences paper.

When my thoughts wander toward that past moment, the moment turns into a placeholder in time. I can´t see the image in relation to infinity. I can´t feel it in relation to that, either. I have to cut it down like a chocolate cake, and consume it one piece at a time. Afterwards, my task becomes connecting it all together again. Knowing that it will never be the same, because time has shifted and I myself have changed.

My mind brings itself to its own end. Sometimes I wish I could stop thinking.

In wintertime the ptarmigans dress up in white. It is the winter plumage they use to hide from us. In spring they dress differently to hide from other predators. But it is not a decision they make. They are not detached from the whole. Like I am. I kill a bird to kill it. To make my dad proud. I take a picture, take it as if it were mine, to show it to you.

This was the last time I killed a bird. But I still eat the birds my father brings home.

*As in, “Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle.” (Jeanette Winterson)

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