Terra Nullius

The constant daylight made Agnes feel granular. Summer in the far north had left her without rest. At the edge of a vast sub-arctic wilderness, she styled her hair, painted her face and put on a loose dress that nonetheless flattered her figure, because some things you cannot hide. No one at North Star’s leadership summit expected much from her, only that she facilitate communication between the mine and its guests. This served her purposes well.

Agnes’s work had taken her around the world, to landscapes that were rich in resources and made harsh demands on the body, but she found nothing more exhausting than dealing with people in the extractive industries. Agnes and the mining company did share one important trait, which made it possible for her to keep going even when she was running low. Like North Star, Agnes was good at making her work appear to be in the interest of what (she hoped) it would destroy, and so Agnes’s post-doctoral research on ‘the response of indigenous populations to extractive violence’ was very well funded.

Agnes had been hired by a Canadian firm subcontracted by North Star to assist with the discussions around the relocation of Jaur, a frontier town that had flourished around their most profitable mine. From it, they extracted iron ore, the kind strong enough to be used in skyscrapers. Having lopped off a mountain peak in order to track the vein into the ground, they’d discovered the mineral cut a diagonal path under the town. With each blast, they were hollowing out the earth on which Jaur was built. A collapse was coming. Mal-Issue1-Terra-Nullius (1) By midnight Agnes was torpid from the welcoming feast of pickled fish, smoked reindeer, potatoes three ways, and cream-based desserts adorned with cloudberries and, of course, too much to drink – wine and beer and schnapps that Agnes had hoped would cast a cool shadow on her sunlight jitters, but instead she felt a rising agitation. She wanted some-one, anyone, to agree with her that the open bar was just one of the ways North Star distracted from the fact that their rhetoric of ‘mindful cooperation’ was bitter at its core. It ended with them all, people and land, being ravaged.

The alcohol felt thick and flat in her blood as she decided not to translate a lewd remark made to a stakeholder about his fellow countrymen flocking to Jaur each winter so they could procreate under the blessing of the Northern Lights. ‘Mr. Kane and his wife winter in the south,’ Agnes told the drunk executive.

The men took off their ties, the women loosened their shirt collars, and a DJ began to play in the function room overlooking the wide, glittering lake after which the mining town was named. The midnight sun slid down the sky to quickly kiss the peaks across the water, only to rise again, brighter. In a language that was not her mother tongue, but was in fact her mother’s tongue, she asked Carl-Erik Rapp, North Star’s managing director: ‘What are those mountains called?’

‘Relax,’ he said, smiling. ‘No more work until tomorrow.’ He poured her a shot that smelled of dill. Those dancing danced harder. The time for talk was done.

Still drenched in daylight, Agnes went to her room. She pulled her blanket over her head, thinking how even though she’d prepared for summer inside the Arctic Circle, she’d still expected there to be dark skies full of stars. She tried to call upon the shadows to fill the gaps made glaring by the light, but shutting her eyes was not enough, so she reached between her legs. Still she could conjure nothing. Perhaps it was due to travel and the anticipation of intense weeks of work, first with the mine and then with the reindeer herders, but this was a different kind of disruption. She could not come.

None of her usual fantasies were available. She could summon an image, but couldn’t connect. It was as though the line were dead. In her fantasies, men were props, mostly cock, and a particular timbre of lust. Their desire for her was unrestrained, and she invited it in, enjoying their attention, what they could add to the more elaborate scenes she staged in her head. The Penis Men, as she thought of them, were only there to support the idea of a woman, someone who was sometimes but not always her. Often she was another woman, or rather, the other woman was an aspect of her, a mouth, a sensation. And when she came, the orgasm was not hers alone but belonged to everyone involved. Her body was their bodies and their pleasures were hers – the feeling of union, energy flowing through a charged system, like an ocean tide. A wave that could carry her into dreams. But instead she got tangled up in practicalities, the limitations of their bodies and who might realize this fantasy with her in real life – if this was something she even wanted.

Agnes gave up. Instead she practiced ‘wave breathing,’ which was meant to calm the nervous system, until she fell into something that passed as sleep. She slept as she had slept for the past weeks, restlessly. When she woke a few hours later, she concluded her inability to rest was a matter of imbalance; it would do her good to get her body as fatigued as her mind.

Agnes hiked with grit and determination, unlike her Sunday hikes back home. There, she’d zip up a canyon for an infusion of nature, which meant peace and calm, before rolling back into the dense city before noon. But those were dry and gentle slopes. The geometry of this landscape inspired fear. Near the summit, she faltered. The patches of snow on her path had a bluish sheen, and she only realised what that meant when her boot broke through the surface – it wasn’t snow on the ground, but snow on a thick layer of ice in the process of melting. She was ankle deep in a vernal stream. When she realized her shoe was not sinking any deeper she thought: This could have been much worse. Stepping back to solid ground, Agnes paused to fill her bottle in the hole her boot had made, momentarily giddy over this easy access to potable water. Where she was from, the landscape was defined by drought, but this water only brought her a moment of calm. As she traversed the mountain to find a better path, something about the angles of the granite made her forget that she knew how to climb. Wherever her eyes went, the steep rocks seemed to move, threatening to drop their weight on her and drag her down. Loose rocks shifting under her boots, she looked down and saw the valley far below. Her thighs and arms went limp. Her body sank down on a boulder, and then there she was: stuck. Cragfast, she told herself. Diagnosing her fear didn’t help. It was the mountains that needed pinning down. If only she knew their name.

Agnes pressed her hands to her chest, trying to find her breath, but each time her ribcage expanded against the rock, she thought she was falling. And then she thought: there’s nowhere to go. This mountain was not here to hold her. It wished her no harm, but neither did it care. Even the lodge was not a shelter. Wherever she went, she was vulnerable. It was only a matter of time. The body revolts, a mountain is filed down so it may rise as a skyscraper in Qatar, leaving Jaur hollow. She remembered a line from a film, something about staring into the unblinking eye of nature.

This is how he found her.

‘Hello?’ he called out in her mother’s native tongue. ‘Are you all right up there?’

Her teeth chattered with relief upon seeing the hiker. Help, she thought. She fixed her eyes on him and managed to stop thinking about how far there was to fall.

‘Hello?’ he repeated.

‘I can’t move,’ she replied in their shared language.

It took a few more questions to get Agnes to form full and coherent sentences, but soon they’d established she was not hurt, just temporarily incapacitated. She repeated that she went climbing all the time, she knew how to scramble and boulder, she knew what mountains were, it was just that right now she … couldn’t. Noting both her fluency in his language and the presence of an accent in the wild, he asked her name. Still rattled, Agnes heard him, but she did not see his smile.

‘Agnes,’ she said.

‘All right, Agnes,’ he replied, pronouncing it as she had. ‘Ag’ like ‘crag’ instead of a spongy ‘gn.’ ‘Let’s get you out of here.’

Agnes was rapid with adrenaline as they made their way back to the lodge, her mind still clouded with panic. She was as though possessed by the land: who were the people who knew it well? Who could withstand its angles? He answered her questions, good-naturedly, going into detail about his basic training, when as a young soldier his survival skills had been put to the test in the dead of winter. He had strapped on skis and slid straight across the wilderness, from here to a destination a few hundred kilometres away, with no break for sleep. He had made excellent time, top two per cent, coming in just beneath the threshold of waking hours before the risk of permanent brain damage would set in. She did not hear this as a boast, intended to catch her interest. All she registered was the land. Their darkness on the mountains no longer suggested shadow to her, setting in contrast the bright snow, an assurance that there would be water next year. It signalled bald rock, treacherous and hostile, a place to get stuck, and the snow pack another surface that could break.

‘Do you know the name of these mountains?’ she asked him.

‘We used to call them the Gauntlet,’ he said, leaving her wanting.

At the mountain lodge, they said a slow goodbye. Agnes assumed the man was lingering because he thought she wasn’t fine to be left on her own. But she was. Maybe the adrenaline was making her seem unhinged? Maybe she should take off her backpack, to signal that they’d arrived? Fingers fumbling, she struggled to release the strap pulled tight across her chest. When she’d succeeded, he stepped behind her and helped her lift off her pack. For a moment, the bulk of him blocked out the sun.

It was then she heard her name being called. The managing director was coming their way.

Something about her fellow hiker changed. It was in his eyes and how he’d arranged himself in relation to her, pulling back slightly, but not in retreat.

When Rapp came close, he recognized the hiker and exclaimed: ‘Hugo! You’re already here.’

It was the first time Agnes heard his name. Full of the mountain, she’d forgotten to ask.

‘I finished my trek early,’ he said.

‘Day hike?’ Rapp asked.

Hugo shook his head. ‘Hundred and forty k.’

‘Shit,’ Rapp said, in that pert way they did in this country.

‘You fit it in when you can.’

Rapp looked between him and Agnes, nodding and saying yes yes under his breath as though what Hugo had said demanded deep consideration.

Then Rapp told Agnes that there was a small fire only she could put out: ‘If you could imagine joining me in the Vik conference room at two, I’d be ever so grateful.’

Rapp’s tone mocked the very notion of courtesy, and the wink he gave Hugo seemed to imply that he didn’t think Agnes would notice he was laying it on thick. Given half a chance, he might refer to her as ‘the little lady’ and she wanted to get away as fast as she could. In the meetings leading up to the conference, she’d let his smugness slide, but now she was off the clock. ‘See you at two,’ she said.

As she was leaving, she looked past Rapp, at Hugo. This time, she saw his smile. It too was full of contempt for the man.

Agnes shampooed her hair twice and then decided it needed deep conditioning. In the minutes the hair mask needed to work, she turned off the water in the shower and busied herself with shaving. She shaved her legs, along the backs of her thighs, her toes, ankles, knees, and bikini line, taking care to catch those stray hairs that seemed to forever evade the razor. As she towelled herself off, her skin felt smooth, receptive to touch. When Agnes realized for whose touch, she blushed. He’s not my type, she thought. He seemed square, but that could have just been the hiking gear. One hundred and forty k. He’d been trekking for a while. And that smile. She wasn’t alone out here. Whatever this was with Hugo, it was a gift and she was grateful for it. It was turning her on. She sat down in the shower and spread her legs. It wasn’t a fantasy she recognized, it was just him, the smile they shared, that did it. Her orgasm was like twilight. For the first time since she’d been up North, Agnes felt calm. She checked the time and the lock on her door. She wanted to come again.

As soon as she lay on her bed, she felt rested, that granular feeling gone. She smiled into her pillow, buried her face in it, feeling the dark. She tried to think of that smile again, but second orgasms required a fresh approach. The shadow of Hugo behind her, his body blocking out the sun, the mountain no match for his skill, pushing her up against the granite, entering her. More than just a cock to fill her. The fantasy made her laugh at first. A big strong military man rescuing you and then staking his claim. Agnes rolled over and stared at the ceiling, disturbed. She didn’t like what the fantasy said about her.

She dressed quickly, and hurried to Vik to put out Rapp’s small fire, which meant sitting in on the meeting between the Reindeer Herders Association and North Star’s community liaison. The mine that would swallow the town edged up against indigenous land and had already caused their reindeer to seek an alternate route to their breeding grounds. North Star wanted to secure more of their land, with the idea of relocating the entirety of Jaur a few kilometers east. Rapp had roped in Agnes as a benevolent presence: a sign that North Star’s heart was in the right place. Something the herder, a woman called Elle Turi, said jumped out at her: ‘If you did this our way, you wouldn’t be able to tell there was even a mine at all.’ The way North Star spoke of the indigenous population made them seem frozen in time, but here was the promise of a kinder, gentler future where everyone’s interests could be addressed. She scrolled through the dossiers Rapp’s assistant had sent her, searching for Elle Turi and was confronted by Hugo’s smile. A professional headshot, his eyes ice-blue, jaw sharp. His skin was as weather-worn in the photo as it had been today. She wondered if he moisturized. She had moisturizer in her room.

His dossier, which had been compiled for those handling the management seminars and so had nothing to do with her, said he was an expert in covert intelligence. He was leading an ‘intensive’ on business strategy the next day. Using the lodge’s slow internet, she found out that he was single and had one grown daughter, whom he must have had in his twenties. This explained something to her about how he’d been on the mountain, treating her as capable, trusting she knew how to handle herself.

‘I’m just doing what I’ve always done,’ Hugo said in English to Mr. Kane, who during the afternoon coffee break had asked Hugo why he’d chosen to leave a career in the military. Hugo recounted the story of a sabotage mission in Syria with such tenderness she could almost forget he was speaking of war. As a result of his ‘leadership, intelligence, and strategy’ a shipment of emergency supplies could finally be distributed to a village in desperate need.

Mr. Kane glanced at Agnes. She gave a subtle nod and translated only the part about the sabotage of enemy vehicles. She made an effort to translate in a way that reflected the businessman’s fluency, rather than his lack. Mr. Kane understood standard American English just fine, but had a difficult time with any other accent. Like Rapp, Hugo spoke confident English and though his accent was quite clean, his vowels expanded in ways that were jarring. In Hugo, Agnes found this attractive.

‘I see,’ Mr. Kane responded. He did not seem impressed, or perhaps the daylight was getting to him too, because he abruptly excused himself after confirming with Agnes that he’d see her again at dinner.

Hugo and Agnes stood on their own among the businessmen, the foreign stakeholders, the members of boards and councils, taking each other in.

‘You make it sound so easy,’ Agnes said. ‘How do you get people to switch to your side?’

She noticed Hugo quickly scan the room behind her. He nodded to the double doors, and together, they walked to the main lodge.

They took a seat in one of the sofa groups by a picture window overlooking the mountains and the lake, as far from the conference rooms as they could get. In booming monotone, an elderly man in an olive-green armchair was reading the weather pages aloud to his wife, telling her the forecast from north to south. 19 degrees, clear skies in the mountains. 23 degrees, rain on the west coast. 23 degrees and cloudy in the east. Outside, a fringe of clouds was being chased by the wind.

‘So you liked my story,’ Hugo said, leaning forward. He made the sofa look small, but something about the question exposed him. Agnes realized he cared what she thought and wasn’t sure of her opinion of him. She liked being swept up in the easy intimacy that can arise between strangers, but she liked feeling wanted more. She shifted in the armchair so that they were eye to eye.

‘It’s not a matter of liking. You save lives. I just try to get people to understand each other and hope for the best.’

‘Our jobs aren't much different. You and I, we put ourselves on the line. We find ways to work around the unworkable.’

This flattered her. Her academic research was mostly interview-based and theoretical. Sure, it was valued in certain circles, but you couldn’t measure its impact. And after the meeting with Elle Turi, Agnes had felt like a shill for the mine, but maybe it didn’t matter which side she was on as long as she kept working towards her – and as it turned out, Elle Turi’s – goal. The way Hugo was reflecting her made her feel bold. As she opened her mouth to speak, their knees touched.

Hugo looked down, as though searching her smooth skin for proof of contact. Her bare knee, singed.

‘I googled you,’ Hugo confessed.

Agnes replied: ‘I masturbated about you.’

His mouth fell open.

‘Twice,’ she quickly added, because to be so blunt felt good, but also because she liked the effect. She had caught him off-guard. She liked seeing him unravel.

‘Ha,’ he burst out, sitting up straight and grabbing his knees, as though to steady himself. His nails were short and uneven, cuticles dry, but his hands looked strong. Mountain strong. They could be rough. She thought of his weight on her, pressing her body against the crag. Taken.

When he’d composed himself, he said: ‘I did, too.’

He seemed relieved to be allowed to say this. This excited Agnes more.

A waitress came by with coffee on a tray.

‘Inger?’ she asked. When no one sitting near the picture window responded, she added: ‘Latte for Inger’ and held out the tray to Hugo.

Hugo looked around in disbelief. Agnes met his gaze, stunned by its barely contained rage. She didn’t know how to respond. Hugo said:

‘Inger. Do I look like an Inger?’

His tone was harsh.

The waitress was confused. Clearly she was new to this language and its naming conventions. Agnes barely understood what was wrong either: something about the name ending in ‘er’ scrambled her understanding of the problem.

‘Can’t you see I’m a man!’

The waitress gave him a confused look, and continued on her search for Inger.

Agnes wanted to return to where they’d been before the waitress interrupted. Inger or Hugo, she had wanted him whatever he was. She told herself the waitress was fine, perhaps Hugo’s outburst hadn’t even registered, but inside Agnes it left a mark. She’d recognized the look in his eyes, the twitch in his movements. She saw a potential for rage and his capacity for violence. Even with her mind resisting, her body was calibrated to sense such things.

Hugo bowed his head. ‘I’m trying too hard to impress you now,’ Hugo said, sounding disappointed in himself.

‘That makes me feel – ’

He looked up at her, and asked: ‘Appreciated?’

It wasn’t what she’d been thinking, but it rang true. Perhaps this man’s violence was not a threat to her but an asset. Whatever he had inside him might be put in service of her, of her well-being. A different kind of fantasy rose in her, more than one of lust. She didn’t resist it. She imagined what the two of them could achieve together, working in the way they did, around the unworkable. Perhaps she’d give up clients like North Star and instead dedicate her life to Elle Turi’s vision of a different kind of mine, a different approach to the Earth, one of connection to this wild country, one born of the land. The large red sun shone on the peaks across the water, turning their snow gold. Agnes thought: This man would hold her.

‘Yes, it does,’ she replied.

His eyes became tender. Hugo reached for a tendril of her dark hair, rubbing the soft strands between his thumb and index finger. The hair on his knuckles was golden blond. She sat still and let him. He could have done anything to her right then and she would have endured. His fingertips grazed her collarbone.

‘I have to see Carl-Erik for dinner,’ Hugo said. ‘But if you’re not busy, I can come find you after?’

Agnes sat with Mr. Kane and Elle Turi at dinner in the lodge. They got along very well, but Agnes was distracted. Agnes had placed her phone in her lap, half-hidden under a napkin. Hugo texted her at the start and end of each course. She tried to just let it buzz, but kept glancing at the screen lighting up on her thighs. Agnes had put on lipstick before dinner, a black-berry-coloured stain. Of course Hugo wasn’t there to see her yet, but she enjoyed the anticipation of him seeing her. She liked the way she looked in the polished surfaces around her. She liked that the lip stain was called Bitten. She liked where Hugo’s fingers had been and where their knees had touched, and kept finding reasons to put her hand there and there. As Mr. Kane and Elle Turi spoke about the year as it looked for someone who kept reindeer, a different concept of time, she let herself drift away from the conversation.

The Penis Men were out in force. A battalion, she assumed, unsure of the usage of the word. Strapping young men with rough hands like his. Men in uniform. She wanted to push the image away, replace it with one that related to what she hoped would come next, but she knew nothing good came of refusing to look at what asked to be seen. All those brutish men, unable to resist her, Agnes welcoming them in. All the while Hugo was watching, a commanding officer under whose protection she’d come to no harm. She thought she heard herself whisper, ‘You can’t have me’ and covered her mouth. Elle Turi finished her dessert, and announced that she had to catch the last train home to Jaur.

Agnes was frustrated with herself as they said goodbye, realizing of course that the value of her job here – as far as her research was concerned – lay in the opportunity it gave her to listen for what could get lost in the din, those glimmers. Insight, incrimination, hope. She couldn’t recall the details of what Mr. Kane and Elle Turi had discussed. Agnes could only picture Hugo’s expression when he realized that she was beyond his reach. It made her feel powerful. Then she thought of the actual man, being alone with him, how much she wanted him to hurt her, and she had to catch her breath. Agnes and Mr. Kane stayed at the table, finishing their over-brewed coffee. She focused on bringing the cup to her lips, trying to pull herself together.

Agnes looked out the window. The sun on the lake was blinding. She shut her eyes.

Mr. Kane asked: ‘Did you manage to find out the name of the mountain range?’

Agnes was touched that he’d noticed. There was no reason for the businessman to pay this kind of attention to his interpreter. ‘Unfortunately not,’ she replied. ‘No one could give me a straight answer.’

‘Then Mrs. Turi’s explanation might help. She said that depending on from where you’re looking at them, the name of the mountains change. And so they’re nameless on the map.’ Then Mr. Kane began to list their names. They were words that described various terrains. Names that did not belong to the mountains, but to your view of them.

In the dining room, the rays of the midnight sun streaked across their table. In her lap, Agnes’s phone began to buzz. It had to be Hugo calling, done with Rapp and dinner. She sat up straighter and smothered the device with her hands. Mr. Kane looked at her with concern, as though she were coming down with something. A woman on a ledge. Her boot through the ice, watching Hugo break. She would find a place to stand. Agnes gripped her phone. I am a man.

Saskia Vogel is a writer and translator from Swedish to English. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The White Review, Sight & Sound, The Offing and others. Her debut novel Permission is coming out in 2019.

1
1   That Obscure Object
1

That Obscure Object

October, 2018

On desire and its objects in two essays, a short story and three poems. Featuring illustrations by Ana Kirova.

II.

Subscribe to our newsletter via email or Messenger

III.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram