Short story: Hannah Rensenbrink’s Postcards From Qasigiannguit

If you look at the Wikipedia page for 720 BC it’s all Hezekiah this and Assyria that. It’s never Uvavnuk or Tookoolito or whoever. Nothing happens in Igaliko. What I’m saying is, Greenland doesn’t get a look in. I understand why but it’s not reasonable, not really. Things were happening here too. Things were happening everywhere too.

*

We’ll just cancel it, Mark said. It was when we were ringing round cancelling the caterers, the venue, the flowers, the string quartet. We’ll just cancel it. I don’t know what came over me but I said NO WE WON’T MARK. We’ve done all this planning. All this money in deposits. I’m going, I said. You can stop at home. But I’m going to go.

*

She keeps close to the lichen-marked granite of the stack. Uak uak, she says, as she gets near, and he says the same back, or something like it: uak, uak, uak. She’s bigger than him. Sometimes she’ll have a grouse with her, or a hare. Sometimes not.

*

Five hours from Heathrow to Copenhagen (never mind the train to Heathrow: three hours). Five hours from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. Then an hour to Ilulissat; then an hour in a helicopter, quavering in half-light up the blue-green-grey west coast, to Qasigiannguit. I don’t think I was frightened but I’ve never felt that alone before. It’s not like I haven’t travelled by myself – I flew to Sarawak, remember, in my first summer of uni, in Malaysia, when Jenn refused to get on the rusty little plane at KL airport, and I left her there, because I wasn’t going to let

*

(cont) her of all people keep me from seeing orang-utans – but this wasn’t about being by myself, it was about being alone, and I know that’s the same thing but really it’s not the same thing.

*

I just found out what gyrfalcons do. I read it in my bird book (it used to be Mark’s bird book but it’s mine now. It came all the way here with me. It couldn’t bemore mine). They don’t build nests. They don’t build their own nests. They find something else’s nest and just move into it. A raven’s or an eagle’s nest. They squat, is what they do.

*

Two thousand, seven hundred and twenty years is an extraordinary amount of time. I mean it’s a ridiculous amount of time. An absurd and pointless amount of time.

*

‘Seven years!’ I kept saying. ‘Seven years, and now this!’ It felt like an impressive quantity of time. A decent shift. Mark thought so too. For me it was: seven years, that’s something, that’s a substantial investment, let’s keep at it, let’s do more of this. Let’s not throw it all away.  I think for him it was: seven years, that’s something, that’s enough. That’ll do. Seven years, and now this.

*

He’d been going on about it for ages. Since long before he proposed – as long as I’ve known him, I think, he’s been going on about it. This trip, this holiday. This place and these fucking birds. It has crossed my mind that perhaps he only proposed so that we could come here on our honeymoon. I’d never have let him spunk six grand on a trip to the arctic circle otherwise. But it’s academic now, isn’t it. Are you allowed to swear on a postcard? Well, I suppose we’ll see.

*

I walked up to the ridge today and I watched them for as long as I could before the cold got too much to bear. And I told myself, this is what people would have seen, the Paleo-Eskimo people, all those years ago. I do the same when I’m somewhere like York or Chester or anywhere really. I tell myself, people walked here, on this spot, on these stones

*

(cont.) a thousand years ago. And I can’t help thinking, so what. I know that’s terrible. But perhaps one of these days, before I go home (it feels strange to think about going home), I’ll say it to the gyrfalcons. Go up there and yell it at the nest. Two thousand seven hundred and twenty years? So bloody what.      

*

Sometimes I walk around the town, around Qasigiannguit. The houses are all painted in bright colours (and all in different bright colours – that’s the best thing). White window frames and steep pitched roofs. They’re prefabs, I think. Shipped in here from somewhere else. Built for bad weather. The town smells of salt and fish and engine-oil. Ice floes bob in the bay. On blue days there’s so much sky you can’t believe it. 

*

I don’t know if there’s someone else. I know he wants there to be someone else. What’s the difference, really? There’ll be someone else eventually. It’s all the same. Just a question of ‘yet’. FWIW gyrfalcons mate for life. 

*

Their shit doesn’t rot. That’s the trick. It’s so cold here that the falcons’ shit doesn’t rot away, it stays where it is, up there on the ledge. The scientists can clamber up there and take a spoonful or whatever and clamber back down and run carbon-14 tests on it and say, eventually, yes, this shit is two thousand seven hundred and twenty years old. Give or take. It’s clever, I’ll give it that.

*

Can it be good, I wonder, watching, can it be wise and right, to stay in one place for two thousand, seven hundred and twenty years?

*

Mark voted for Brexit (or ‘Lexit’, as he calls it, like a wanker). Lot of stuff about agriculture and state intervention rules. But there’s more to it than that. He’d talk about people having a connection with the ground beneath their feet. He’d talk about people who belonged to the place where they lived. He didn’t talk about the people who didn’t belong. But there must have been some, in his way of thinking. I mean it stands to reason.

*

Christ, he could be an arsehole sometimes. A proper straight-up nine-carat tin-plated fucking arsehole, a bumptious, hectoring, pigeon-chested, self-righteous slap-headed prick. Christ I hated him sometimes. Christ he could be such a cunt. Might not post this one.

*

Greenland is mostly an icecap. It’s an icecap that’s melted a bit around the edges, like a sucked mint.   

*

You can find out what it’s like to be with a lot of people for, say, one year. Or you can find out what it’s like to be with one person for a lot of years. You can’t do both. That’s what I ought to have said to him: Mark, you can’t do both.

*

Some birds might have thought: our species has lived here for a hundred years. Isn’t that long enough? That’s what Mark would have thought, if he were a bird. Let’s try somewhere else! But the gyrfalcons think that staying in the same place for two millennia is the only way to find out what it’s like to stay in the same place for two millennia and a day.

*

Could I live here? I could live in a little green hut with a pickup on the driveway. I could get to know the language. I could get to know the mountains. I could work on a halibut boat.

*

They’re white flecked with black, like a tyre-track in the snow on a tarmac road. Their sharp calls make echoes among the cliffs. Maybe that’s why they do it. In one way they’ve been here for two thousand, seven hundred and twenty years, but in another way they’re only a few years old: six or seven, maybe. In that way they’re only children. They’re still exploring. Kids love echoes.   

*  

love echoes, love echoes. LOL.   

*

My ancestors two hundred years ago were living in Utrecht, selling cheeses. I don’t know what my ancestors two thousand years ago were doing. Were they smelting bronze? Hunting the last mastodon? And where? I don’t know. But I know where the gyrfalcons’ ancestors were. They were here, doing this: killing, eating, breeding, calling out, throwing shape-shifting shadows across the age-old granite.

*

I woke up with the barman from the pub in the town. It was all right. It was just sex. He’s better looking than Mark. But I’m better looking than Mark too. I’ve seen the way people look at us (I mean looked at us). Men. They were thinking ‘Aw, she could do so much better’, but I always knew I couldn’t, and not because of me, but because of them. After I left Per’s place I watched the falcons for three hours.

*

If I’m not careful I’ll end up like that man in that fucking falcon book Mark was always going on about.

*

I suppose gyrfalcons would be pretty Brexit. They’re the couple in the tumbledown farmhouse on a lease that’s been in place since King Henry’s times. They’re the family where they’ve never left the same terraced street and no-one’s ever had a passport. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. It’s like any relationship. The longer you stay the more you learn.

*

What will you do, he said. I said, first of all I’ll go to Greenland. He said, what then. I said I’d decide that when I got home.

*

This rock is good. Let’s stay here. Hares and grouse taste good. Let’s keep eating them. Gyrfalcon thought processes. It would be easy to be sentimental. Let’s not ever change, darling. We’ve all had that thought. Let’s keep it like this, this moment, just like this, exactly like this.

*

Staying in the same place doesn’t stop time. I want to shout, hey, gyrfalcons, staying in the same place doesn’t stop time. But they know that, of course they do. They have a chick on the way. They know spring becomes winter. They must feel their age in their bones, who doesn’t? I took wine up to the gyrfalcon nest today.      

*

It was warm here, two thousand, seven hundred and twenty years ago. Warmer anyway. Not warm. Not balmy. Not somewhere you’d come on holiday – unless you’re Mark, or me – unless you’re me, coming to Greenland out of spite, coming to Qasigiannguit out of spite, out of heartbreak, coming to the gyrfalcon place for no good reason at all.

*

It’s been three weeks. I think I go home tomorrow.

*

Today she brought what looked like a seagull, one dead white underhanging wing flapping as she flew. I once found a dismembered black-headed gull on the ground in the shadow of Wakefield cathedral. Peregrines nest there. You might say that falcons are drawn to ancient places but then why do they nest on Hartlepool power station? I think that falcons don’t give a shit. About what’s old, what’s new. About time.       

*

Just sitting here with a bag of cakes and a flask of warm wine, watching the gyrfalcons plunge and rise through the twilight. They settle down at night but at just the right time, like now, I can see the stars and the gyrfalcons too. I don’t think the stars have changed much. I know they’ve changed, but not much. The sun hasn’t changed. Do you know what I’m starting to think? I’m starting to think that the gyrfalcons 

*

(cont.) wake up each day surprised by the sun.

This story was first published in Issue 12 of The Lonely Crowd. You can buy it here.

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