To That Silence, I Told Everything | Xiao Yue Shan | Granta

To That Silence, I Told Everything

Xiao Yue Shan

There are supposedly four hundred people living in the northern village of Skagaströnd, Iceland, but if all I had to go on was my own knowing, the number would dwindle to a finger-count. Along the coastline, the dice-toss of homes ranged silent and secretive. There were lamps in windows and linens ghosting on washing lines, hinting at bodies that read by yellow light or slept in navy cotton – but I hardly ever came across them. Though the lines and pathways that had brought me here required a great number of convergences and intersections, it was parallels that greeted me upon my arrival. The distance between the Iceland Sea and the mountain Spákonufell, the way the road mirrored perfectly the winding turns and curves of the earth, how the silence of the people never even touched the immense voices of the landscape. Day after day I walked the fifteen minutes between a kingfisher-blue house and a library that seemed to rest at the end of the world, along whistling water and dark rocks, past the diminutive structures, the upwards sweep of land behind them, the solid weather.

The library was coated seashell white, rimmed red. From one window there could be nothing but blue, then from the opposite nothing but black. When I unlocked the doors in the afternoon, the only evidence of other comings and goings were footprints on the tiles, and when I locked them once again at night, I turned to face a tremendous silence. It wasn’t the end of the world, of course. Local fishing boats docked at irregular hours, skimming back and forth with their catch of Atlantic cod. Fresh lilies and carnations appeared daily, somehow miraculously, in the only supermarket. Armoured tyres carved tracks along the single two-lane road. The darkness, the seclusion, the nothingness – it was only frightening because I was in someone else’s home, furnished with symbols and inheritances I could not read. I had to move within it slowly, making my way through a labyrinth of invisible facts, invisible company, invisible testimonies of living.

All throughout the ungiving frost of March I repeated the same routine, entering the library in the late afternoon and leaving long after all the other lights in the town muted low. I had taken a month-long writing residency, continuing an ongoing project of writing poems that follow the logic and narratives of coastlines. Having lived most of my life on islands, their precarious, stranded geography has always moved me: the fluid nature of human life in constant negotiation with water. Iceland was a further elaboration of this project, after Hong Kong, Vancouver Island and Japan – and because it was the last, it became a place where all those previously disparate points coalesced. In drafts and carbons, I traced a path backwards through the red bridges and porous torii gates of Iwaki; skeletons of tsunami-swallowed structures in Fukushima; the patterned flanks of Aomori horses, spruce and cedar along Strathcona inlets; the greening islets of Kyuquot Sound. And when I raised my head from the paper, I looked out the window at a familiar tableau – the blue broadside, the finer line of blue in the distance, the black. Eternal division of land and sea. But that remembered image in the window soon recedes, as if a camera is pulling back, and I am left in the library, surrounded by books I cannot read. The sea-lines of my life demur, paling to the enormous gulf that surges underfoot.

Gradually, as the landmarks of journey diluted into the familiar physical patterns of commute, the days began to feel softer with wear. The black stones became footholds, the windows became facades, and the silence – well, one never gets used to it. But after a week or so, the flow of that silence, which swept up every footstep, every whistle in its appetite, laid down against the landscape. By then, it was not simply that I was walking down silent streets, opening silent doors, walking down silent hallways to enter silent rooms, but that I was being carried through silence itself.

Xiao Yue Shan

Xiao Yue Shan is a poet living on Vancouver Island. How Often I have Chosen Love was published in 2019. Then Telling Be the Antidote will be published in 2023.

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