I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames…fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me…I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
He had grown corpulent since his posting as District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwelling provided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf.
As he traveled over the north peninsula with its thin lip of ocean on the horizon, the clouds began to clear and the soft red light of the late June sun flooded the pass…The dread that Tóti had felt so firmly lining his stomach dissipated as he fell into a quiet appreciation of the countryside before him.
We are all God’s children, he thought to himself. This woman is my sister in Jesus, and I, as her spiritual brother, must guide her home… “I will save her,” he whispered.
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out-of-doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
Cruel Birds, ravens, but wise. And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness.
What sort of woman kills men?
The only murderesses Margrét had known were the women in the sagas, and even then, it was with words that they had killed men; orders given to servants to slay lovers or avenge the death of kin. Those women murdered from a distance and kept their fingers clean. But these times are not saga times…This woman is not a saga woman.
I prefer a story to a prayer. They whipped me for that at this farm, Kornsá, once, when I was young and fostered out to watch over the home field. The farmer Björn did not like that I knew the sagas better than him. You’re better off keeping company with the sheep, Agnes. Books written by man, not God, are faithless friends and not for your kind.
To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things…It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten…Who was she really?…she made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.
“No such thing as truth,” Agnes said, standing up. Tóti stood up also…“There is truth in God,” he said, earnestly, recognizing an opportunity to do his spiritual duty. “John, chapter eight, verse thirty-two: ‘And ye…’”
“‘Shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Yes, I know. I know,” Agnes said. She bundled her knitting things together… “Not in my case, Reverend Thorvardur,” she called to him. “I’ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me.”
He built his church from wives’ tales and the secret language of weather; saw the blinking eye of God in the habits of the sea, the swooping merlin, the gnashing teeth of his ewes. When he caught me knitting on the doorstep he accused me of lengthening the winter. “Do not think nature is not watchful of us,” he warned me. “She is as awake as you and I.” He smiled at me. Passed the smooth breadth of his palm over my forehead. “And as secretive.”
I’ll tell you something, Reverend Tóti. All my life people have thought I was too clever…That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart… to get caught up in this by accident. But Sigga is dumb and pretty and young, and that is why they don’t want to see her die…They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence. And like it or not, Reverend, that is the truth of it.
I explained that I had begun to dig a grave for Mamma. Uncle Ragnar frowned and told me I shouldn’t call her Mamma, and wasn’t I ashamed of myself, thinking to bury her near the doorstep where everyone would tread on her, and not in the holy ground of a churchyard.
“Why not Sigga?” Tóti asked in a small voice.
Blöndal shook his head. “The maid of sixteen who burst into tears as soon as I summoned her? Sigga didn’t even attempt to lie—she is too simple-minded, too young to know how. She told me everything. How Agnes hated Natan, how Agnes was jealous of his attentions to her. Sigga is not bright, but she saw that much.”
Tóti nodded, and slowly picked up the swan feather… “You mean to make an example of her,” he said quietly.
“I mean to deliver God’s justice here on earth,” Blöndal said, frowning. “I mean to honor the authorities who have appointed me by fulfilling my duty as a lawkeeper.”
…“I hear that you have appointed Gudmundur Ketilsson as executioner.”
…“I do not have to explain my decisions to you, Reverend. I am not accountable to parish priests. I am accountable to Denmark. To the King…We are not her to discuss my performance. We are here to discuss yours.”
When I was sixteen years old I dreamt that I was walking barefoot in a lava field…In every direction there was nothing but rock and snow, and great chasms and crack in the ground…Just when I thought I would die from fear, a young man appeared …and even though I was still terrified, I had his hand in mine, and it was a comfort. Then suddenly, in my dream, I felt the ground give way beneath my feet…and I fell into a chasm…I was dropped into the earth, buried in silence, and it was unbearable, and then I woke.
She said Natan had started giving himself some airs, calling himself Lyngdal, not Ketilsson, though neither of us could work out why—it was a strange sort of name to have, not Icelandic in the slightest. María thought it was probably to make himself out to be a Dane, and I wondered that he was allowed to change his name at all. María told me that men might do as they please, and that they are all Adams, naming everything under the sun.
“What’s the name for the space between stars?”
“No such name.”
“Make one up.”
I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”
“That’s another way of saying heaven, Agnes.”
“No, Natan. It’s not.”
Agnes Jónsdóttir. I never thought it could be that easy to name yourself…Let everyone know whose bastard I truly am. Agnes Jónsdóttir. She sounds like the woman I should have been…She could even be the sister of Sigurlaug and Steinvör Jónsdóttir. Margrét’s daughter. Born blessed under a marriage. Born into a family that would not be ripped apart by poverty. Agnes Jónsdóttir would not have been so foolish as to love a man who spent his life opening veins, mouths, legs…She would have been assured of a place in heaven. She would have believed in heaven.
“What do you do with the kit after you kill its parents?”
“Some hunters leave it there to die. They are no use for market— the skins are too small.”
“What do you do?”
“I stove their heads in with a rock.”
“That is the only decent thing to do.”
“Yes. To leave them is cruelty.”
What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? We’re all shipwrecked. All beached in a peat bog of poverty. When was the last time I even attended church? Not while I was at Illugastadir…Perhaps things would have been different if Natan had let me go to church at Tjörn. I might have made friends there. I might have met a family to turn to when it all became twisted…But he didn’t let me go, and there was no other friend, no light to head towards in that wintered landscape.
Where would I have gone? I knew only the valley of Vatnsdalur; knew where it was scabbed with rock, knew the white-headed mountains and the lake alive with swans, and the wrinkled skins of turf by the river. And the ravens, the constant, circling ravens. But Illugastadir was different. I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky— there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.
“Thórbjörg had an inkling of what Fridrik planned. She knew about some sheep Fridrik stole. She lied to the courtroom…Thórbjörg saved my life,” Agnes added after a moment’s pause. “She found me on her doorstep after Natan threw me out. I would have died had she not brought me inside and let me stay there.”
Margrét nodded. “No one is all bad.”
“Admit it. You want this too, Agnes.”
At that point…I saw what Fridrik held in his hands. It was a hammer and a knife.
What do I remember? I didn’t believe him. I went back to my bed on the floor of the cowshed, suddenly weary. I wanted nothing to do with him. What happened?
I am crying and my mouth is open and filled with something, it is choking me and I spit it out. On the ground is a stone, and I look back at Margrét, and see that she did not notice. “The stone was in my mouth,” I say.
“Will they drown me?” I ask, and someone shakes her head. It is Lauga. “Agnes,” she says, and I say, “That is the first time you have called me by my name,” and that is it, she collapses as though I have stabbed her in the stomach.