Short story: Listening to the Faroese

Listening to the Faroese, published by Little Toller Books


Listening to the Faroese

A visit to the church at Sandvík, the Faroe Islands

Sunday morning. The houses are sleeping. From a distant window, a spinster can be seen sidling into her sitting room with spools of wool. Time slows as nostalgia creeps down the lanes. Sheep dogs walk the static streets with perfect freedom, sniffing at strangers, chasing their own shadows. No owner in sight. On the hill, unattended children play hopscotch, flitting like butterflies and sucking on gobstoppers. They shout a volley of consonants and produce for their imaginary companions fantasy dialogues of non-words in a covert, private speech. Doors to their homes are left ajar; radios can be heard crackling in nearby sitting rooms. A fizz of static. Through an open, Prussian blue-curtained window, I hear a woman singing. Her voice is mystical, belonging with the gulls that are catapulted across the sky in front of her. Her broken words become lost in the wind.

A retired trawler man with one eye on the sea saunters up the hill to the church at Sandvík, past laundry hanging from lines, still wet from yesterday’s drizzle. We chat briefly about the weather and he points to the clouds pillowing on the hill, throwing a pall over the valley. ‘Bad weather. But, soon it will be gone’, he says with unexpected cheeriness. His eyes peer towards the slippery shore where a father and son are crabbing in the drizzle. Further along the shore line, hooded crows with quarter-grins drop molluscs on the bare rocks from a great height and a brace of Eider ducks brood in the fjord. Their pantomime ‘oohing’ seems almost satirical.

Once in the church, two female church wardens with shingled hair and drawn-on eyebrows approach me; their tobacco-coloured eyes are full of proud memories of events that have taken place in this building. Huddled in the narrow nave, they summarise the church’s impressive history in excitable, arm-waving vignettes, producing piles of drawings and photographs of the church in its earlier guises. With rouged cheeks, their eyes fix on me. They stand slightly too close, breathing out in fetid bursts. Their legs are netted in veins; their puffy fingers weighed down with jewellery. We talk about the local dialect and the lost words blown away into the ether of the tunnel. ‘Oh, you must speak to Einar’, they say. He remembers the old words. Then a few more residents soldier in, and our party breaks up.

No more than 75 people live in Sandvík today. But, I am told there are just a few children. The chaotic, high pitched collective twitter has almost fallen silent. But writers have lived here, and sculptors have left their mark. Down by the shore, a Hans Pauli Olsen sculpture of Sigmundur Brestisson, hin seinasta ferðin (‘the final journey’) reminds us of the first Faroese to convert to the Christian faith. ‘Sigmundur Brestisson introduced Christianity to the Faroe Islands in 999’ offers one of the church wardens. A polite smile flits across her face. ‘The pagan, Tróndur í Gøtu, attacked Sigmund one night at his yard in Skúvoy, an island further north’ she continues. ‘Sigmundur fled by swimming to Sandvík, here on the island of Suðuroy, a distance of 9 miles. The Færeyinga saga tells us that the exhausted Sigmundur was killed by a local Suðuroy farmer when he arrived on the Sandvík shore’, she says.

The smiling wardens apologise that the congregation will be small today, but I like it this way. I warm to the smallness of everything here. It is a microcosm of well-being. And the words seem to have a greater impact if there are fewer to absorb them. There are fifteen anoraked souls dotted amongst the pews, organising their thoughts and deleting their transgressions. Charcoal-haired descendants of shipwrecks and 17th century pirates fondle well-thumbed psalters. A couple whisper to one another on the pew behind me. I think to myself how their scrunching words are made for life on the choppy sea. I listen to the hushed dj and ch sounds colliding with one another, merging with the wind thumping on the glass. I wait for the service to start and watch the shadows slide down the walls.

We are startled slightly by the metallic clang of the bell; the call to prayer still means something on these islands. When the bells toll and knell, the pews are sometimes packed with purple-faced people listening to the peal. With so many people lost at sea, the significance of the church has never really waned in such tightly-knit communities. And it is here, on these small mid-Atlantic islands shaped by weather, that you feel as if there is something bigger than you, something close and over-arching. It is always there, the proximity of nature, the proximity of fate.

Two tousle-haired stragglers in soiled cardigans squeeze past the priest who pulls on the bell-rope. The final additions to the congregation take up their seats on the pew at the back of the church where children would have once played hide-and-seek. One picks his teeth with a grass-stem. The other extracts the dirt from under his nails and flicks it onto the leather hassocks. It is unusual for a priest to hold the service in this tiny bygd (‘village’), and there is no guarantee there will be an organist either. At a church service in neighbouring Hvalba, a couple of miles to the south and on the other side of the tunnel, the organist and his boyfriend had recently come from Tórshavn – a 2 hour boat ride; the church-goers gossiped about them in the weeks that followed. But irrespective of whether a priest, organist or neither turns up, the islanders get by just fine. These Lutheran services are designed so that any lay-preacher can introduce the hymns and knows exactly where to read from the Bible. The congregation committed the liturgy to memory long ago. The bachelor twins who lived in identical bedrooms in the village of Sumba also on the island of Suðuroy told me how they knew the entire Book of Psalms in Faroese (off by heart). As children, they spent several hours a day singing. The Bible and Book of Psalms were more or less the only written material that generation had in their own language.

There is a pause among the muffled voices. Jugular bulging beneath his Lutheran ruff, the priest strolls up the aisle with a knowing smile. Half-child, half-man, he carries a desiccated and punctured leather briefcase. The ruff gives him an aristocratic air and conjures up images of early 17th century ceremonial paintings in ancient dining halls. His eyes are glassy, his face pale. A poker-faced organist sits behind a wooden door adjacent to the font, having delivered the opening prayer in a tired monotone. Then, the priest begins to speak. He speaks with a delicate authority. Between the priest’s deliberate pauses, you can hear the raindrops peck against the leaded windows.He ascends the pulpit. His voice is lavish – velvety and smooth, but penetrating. It girdles heaven. A sense of finality falls upon each word, so that the congregation has a chance to ponder the suspended meaning. He stands, yoked to the lectern; the forefingers of his fish-scaled hands grip the wood and bulge crimson with blood. The priest paints a pictorial language with his arms. Then, his hands travel back to the lectern and his fingers march slow time on the oak. I analyse the architecture of his syntax, the timing of his syllables. He pronounces the words as if each were bursting with profound meaning, as if the language belonged to him. The words twist and turn. The joy of hearing the pulse of the Faroese language is partly what brings me here. The vowels sweep around the curvy lanes, and the consonants squelch in the mud.

The Faroese love to hear the spoken word, the local voice, the figures of speech that are shared by so few. They sing Faroese songs morning and night, compose cadenzas and remember ballads that paint pictures of seditious soldiers, bloody battles and buckled men. On the radio, they talk about the conscription of Faroese metaphors, nouns dressing as verbs and how they can ‘bend’ their language. ‘We are fond of the declinations’, I remember one of the bachelor twins telling me repeatedly. The Faroese share an intimacy with their language, playing with the sounds to make new words that have an acoustic, poetic appeal.

It is the sounds of the Faroese language (so different from Danish which all Faroese also speak) that for many spell home; an acoustic togetherness celebrated in the church, on the radio and in the community halls. I remember when I first fell for the letters: the ø and å had somehow an ancient, mythical allure. They felt like orthographic relics from a forgotten era of oral epic poetry. I wanted to know their sounds. It was the same with the coins. I can remember as a child examining the Danish kroner (the currency used in the Faroes) coins with holes in them, imagining the holes representing the small circles over the letter ‘a’.

I am half-listening to the sermon, and the words are more sounds than meaning. The beauty of half-listening is the appreciation of the physicality of the voice. The tone comes before the word. I register the rhythm, the volume, the contours. And, then the words. They sit on the outer edge of my consciousness. They are like small acoustic parcels that bounce around, not quite settling in my memory. And then come the semantics. By dint of persistent concentration, my mind moves from hearing the words as music to actually digesting their meaning.

Here, language is shaped by the actions and events of people living in the landscape. After the service, I sit chatting to my neighbour about the Faroese language. samgonga (‘communications, alliance, union’) whispers the short-haired woman with curt consonants next to me. It comes from the drive of sheep undertaken jointly by owners of adjoining parts of the field. ‘We shape our language ourselves’, she insists. ‘From the way we live’. We like to play with the language. There is a pause. ‘You like music?’, she asks. ‘Yes, well, tonleik (‘music’), it just means ‘playing with tones’, you see. And so, she continues.

She wants to tell me about the special connection this church has with the Faroese language. It was in this warm, colourful church that the first ever sermon was given in Faroese in 1911. At the time, it was illegal to preach in any language other than Danish. Denmark had suppressed the Faroese language. It was seen as a deficient dialect, not fit for certain purposes. The Danes wanted the language of the Faroes to be Danish. But 800 miles away on a remote Faroese island, the tiny population of Sandvík had supported a pugilistic priest who was brave enough to break ranks.

These churches have an alluring simplicity. From the ceiling, brass candle chandeliers hang suspended next to model boats. The wooden pews are painted white with blue colonial ends: the colours of the ocean. Some of the church bells come from retired ships. There is a feeling of intimacy and localness here. This particular church was built in Froðba (a small bygd on the outskirts of Tvøroyri) and moved to Tvøroyri, both of which are on the island of Suðuroy. It had to be dismantled, put on a ship and then rebuilt in Sanvdvík in 1908 because Tvøroyri got its own church. These stories are common in the Faroes: mid-19th century churches were carried bit-by-bit over mountains. What is more, a local poet, Paul F., wrote about the extraordinary life of the 19th century pall-bearers: tired, sodden men who carried coffins over mountains in mid-winter to the nearest church for burial. I loved these stories of stoic faith and hardship. They defined the Faroes, and I would hear such accounts everywhere I went.

After the service in Sandvík, a huddle of shy men stand in the ante-chapel. They whisper soft, looping narratives filled with cobwebs of nicknames. An awkward silence. Skewed, furtive glances. The church-goers are keen to know who the visitor is, but do not wish to put me on the spot. ‘Where is he from in Norway?’, I hear the local keeper of lost words mutter in Faroese. Once the ambiguities have been solved, the priest and a handful of worshippers step outside to smoke. And then under the blue fug of cigarette smoke, their words having spaced themselves into silence, they slowly disperse in the light drizzle. Even when it rains, there is a moody beauty here.



Stephen Pax Leonard is a writer, linguist, traveller