Nonfiction from Eimear Laffan

Photo: Nasim Keshmiri

Aspirational Self-Portrait as Reindeer and Fox

In the beginning there’s a flimsy coat of snow on the brickwork porch outside my ground floor apartment, a copy of King Lear limp on the coffee table. Twitter reliably informs me that Shakespeare wrote the tragedy during the plague. I score a copy from the local library an hour before it closes indefinitely, along with a copy of Ulysses. Aspirations are important, this word that derives from Latin: aspirationem, a breathing. A function a ventilator can perform should you be unable to do so on your own.

After considering the possibility of no travel, I visit the Svalbard Islands courtesy of YouTube. It is home to the northernmost town on earth, poetically named Longyearbyen. I never imagined going anywhere the sun doesn’t rise. The risk is rewarded. I am quickly seduced by the Svalbard reindeer. When the Arctic sun embarks on its own vacation, the reindeer cease to eat. They stand unmoving on frozen ground in a state not quite torpor, not quite hibernation. I work to embody this spirit as the snow recedes and the sun comes out of hiding.

A local doctor writes of his neighbourhood banging pots and pans in unison from the confines of their individual gardens. A new evening ritual. All I can hear is the sound of spruce keys from the pianist on the second floor. This is not a complaint. He plays Bach, Chopin, jazz tunes my knowledge doesn’t extend to.

There are novels that offer worlds in a single building. Think Life: A User’s Manual, The Yacoubian Building and The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The latter centers on a philosophy reading concierge who conceals her love of Marx and Tolstoy. She (spoiler alert) ends up getting knocked over by a dry cleaner’s van, reminiscent of the accident that would kill Roland Barthes. When novelist Muriel Barbery was finished with the concierge, she went to the sixth floor, settled in with the food critic; Gourmet Rhapsody becomes her subsequent novel. Because we’ve already met Pierre, we know he is dying.

As I traverse Longyearbyen, I am thinking of Frida Kahlo. At six, polio made one of her legs shorter than the other. At eighteen, a bus accident fractured her pelvis, her shoulder, her spine. At forty-six, her right foot was amputated. She wrote: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” I am thinking of erasure poetry, where what is taken away continues to stalk the page.

On my travels I also meet the arctic fox. Between its white coat of winter and brown coat of summer, it dons a mottled variation. Not quite one or the other. We are in the world now but not of it. It moves with the animals now waking, with the single stellar jay who used to busy herself gathering twigs, confident she could make a winter home in the maples outside my window.

I return to Kahlo, to her bathtub and beds. “I paint self-portraits,” she once wrote, “because I am so often alone.”
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Eimear Laffan‘s work has appeared in Ambit, MoonPark Review & Wildness Journal. She lives in Nelson, British Columbia. Find her on Twitter @cadmiumskies.

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