On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.
Now the women must fend for themselves.
Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.
Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.
Release date: February 11, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 352
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Kiran Millwood Hargrave
That afternoon, the best sail is spread like a blanket across her lap, Mamma and Diinna at its other corners. Their smaller, neater fingers are working smaller, neater stitches into the wind-wear tears, while she patches cloth over holes left by the mast fastenings.
Beside the fire there’s a stack of white heather drying, cut and brought by her brother Erik from the low mountain on the mainland. Tomorrow, after, Mamma will give her three palmfuls for her pillow. She’ll wrench it apart, stuff it earth and all into the casing, the honey scent almost sickening after months of only the stale smell of sleep and unwashed hair. She’ll take it between her teeth and scream until her lungs wheeze with the sweet dirt tang of it.
Now, something makes her look up and out towards the window. A bird, dark against dark, a sound? She stands to stretch, to watch the bay, flat grey and beyond it the open sea, tips of waves like smashed glass glittering. The boats are loosely pegged out against it by their two small lights, bow and aft, barely flickering.
She imagines she can tell Pappa and Erik’s apart from the others, with its second-best sail rigged tight to the mast. The jerk and stop-start of their rowing, their backs to the horizon where the sun skulks, out of sight for a month now, and for another month to come. The men will see the steady light from Vardø’s curtainless houses, lost in their own sea of dim-lit land. They’re already out beyond the Hornøya stac, nearly at the place where the shoal was sighted earlier in the afternoon, worried into bright action by a whale.
“It will have passed on,” Pappa said. Mamma has a great terror of whales. “Well eaten its fill by the time Erik manages to haul us there with those herringbone arms.”
Erik only bowed his head to accept Mamma’s kiss, and his wife Diinna’s press of thumb to his forehead that the Sámi say will draw a thread to reel men at sea home again. He rested a hand on her belly for a moment, bringing the swell of it more obviously through her knitted tunic. She pushed his hand away, but gently.
“You’ll call it early. Let it be.”
After, Maren will wish she rose and kissed them both on each rough cheek. She will wish she had watched them go to the water in their stitched sealskins, her father’s strung-out stride and Erik’s shambling behind. Wish that she had felt anything at all about them going, other than gratitude for the time alone with Mamma and Diinna, for the easiness of other women.
Because, at twenty and with her first marriage proposal come three weeks before, she at last considered herself one of them. Dag Bjørnsson was making them a home from his father’s second boathouse, and before winter was done it would be finished, and they wed.
Inside, he told her, panting hot, scratching breath beneath her ear, would be a fine hearth and separate food store so he wouldn’t need to walk through the house with his axe like Pappa did. The wicked glint, even in Pappa’s careful hands, brought bile to her tongue. Dag knew this, and cared to know.
He was blond as his mother, delicately featured in a way that Maren knew other men took to mean weakness, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t mind that he brushed his wide mouth against her throat, as he told her of the sheet she should weave for the bed he would build for them. And though she didn’t feel anything at his hesitant caress at her back, too gentle and high to mean much at all through her dark blue winter dress, this house that would be hers—this hearth and bed—sent a pulse low in her belly. At night she’d press her hands to the places she’d felt the warmth, fingers cold bars across her hips and numb enough not to be hers.
Not even Erik and Diinna have their own house: they live in the narrow room Maren’s father and brother tacked along the back edge of their outer wall. Their bed fills the width of it, is pressed flush against Maren’s own through the divide. She put her arms over her head on their first nights together, breathing in the musty straw of her mattress, but never heard so much as a breath. It was a wonder when Diinna’s belly started to show. The baby would be here just after winter left, and then there would be three in that slender bed.
After, she will think: perhaps she should have watched for Dag too.
But instead she fetched the damaged sailcloth and spread it over all their knees, and did not look up until the bird or the sound or the change in the air called her to the window to watch the lights shifting across the dark sea.
Her arms crackle: she brings one needle-coarsened finger to the other and pushes it under her woollen cuff, feels the hair stiff and the skin beneath it tightening. The boats are still rowing, still steady in the uncertain light, lamps glimmering.
And then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness. Mamma is fetched to the window by the light and the noise, the sea and sky clashing like a mountain splitting so they feel it through their soles and spines, sending Maren’s teeth into her tongue and hot salt down her gullet.
And then maybe both of them are screaming but there is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone. Maren goes spilling out into the wind, creased double by her suddenly sodden skirts, Diinna calling her in, wrenching the door behind to keep the fire from going out. The rain is a weight on her shoulders, the wind slamming her back, hands tight in on themselves, grasping nothing. She is screaming so loud her throat will be bruised for days. All about her, other mothers, sisters, daughters are throwing themselves at the weather: dark, rain-slick shapes, clumsy as seals.
The storm drops before she reaches the harbour, two hundred paces from home, its empty mouth gaping at the sea. The clouds roll themselves up and the waves fall, resting at each other’s horizons, gentle as a flock settling.
The women of Vardø gather at the scooped-out edge of their island, and though some are still shouting, Maren’s ears ring with silence. Before her, the harbour is wiped smooth as a mirror. Her jaw is caught on the hinges of itself, her tongue dripping blood warm down her chin. Her needle is threaded in the web between her thumb and forefinger, the wound a neat circle of pink.
As she watches, a final flash of lightning illuminates the hatefully still sea, and from its blackness rise oars and rudders and a full mast with gently stowed sails, like underwater forests uprooted. Of their men, there is no sign.
It is Christmas Eve.
Overnight, the world turns white. Snow piles on snow, filling the windows and the mouths of doors. The kirke stands dark that Christmas, that first day after, a hole between the lit houses, swallowing light.
They are snowed in for three days, Diinna portioned off in her narrow room, Maren unable to rouse herself any more than she can Mamma. They eat nothing but old bread, settling like pebbles in their stomachs. Maren feels the food so solid inside her, and her body so unreal about it, she imagines herself pinned down to the earth only by Mamma’s stale loaves. If she doesn’t eat, she will become smoke and gather in the eaves of their house.
She keeps herself together by filling her belly until it aches, and by placing as much of herself as possible in the warmth from the fire. Everywhere it touches, she tells herself, she is real. She lifts her hair to show the grubby nape of her neck, spreads her fingers to let the warmth lick between them, lifts her skirts so her woollen stockings begin to singe and stink. There, and there, and there. Her breasts, back, and between them her heart, are caught in her winter vest, bundled tight together.
The second day, for the first time in years, the fire goes out. Pappa always laid it, and they only tended it, keeping it banked at night and breaking its crust each morning to let the hot heart of it breathe. Within hours there is a layer of frost on their blankets though Maren and her mother sleep together in the same bed. They don’t speak, don’t undress. Maren wraps herself in Pappa’s old sealskin coat. It was not flensed properly and reeks a little of rotted fat.
Mamma wears Erik’s from when he was a boy. She is dull-eyed as a smoked fish. Maren tries to make her eat, but her mother only curls into her side on the bed, sighs like a child. Maren is grateful for the blankness at the window that means the sea is hidden from sight.
Those three days are a pit she falls into. She watches Pappa’s axe wink in the dark. Her tongue grows thick and mossy, the tender place where she bit it during the storm spongy and swollen, with something hard at its centre. She worries at it, and the blood makes her thirstier.
She dreams of Pappa and Erik, wakes dank and sweating, hands freezing. She dreams of Dag and when he opens his mouth it is full of nails meant for their bed. She wonders if they will die there, whether Diinna is already dead, her baby still paddling inside her, slowing. She wonders if God will come to them, and tell them to live.
They are both of them reeking when Kirsten Sørensdatter digs them out on the third night. Kirsten helps them restack and light the fire at last. When she clears the path to Diinna’s door, Diinna looks almost furious, the dull gleam of her pouted lip catching in the torchlight, hands pressed hard either side of her swollen belly.
“Kirke,” says Kirsten to them all. “It is the Sabbath.”
Even Diinna, who doesn’t believe in their God, does not argue.
It isn’t until they are all gathered in the kirke that Maren understands: nearly all their men are dead.
Toril Knudsdatter lights the candles, every one, until the room blazes so bright it stings Maren’s eyes. She counts silently. There once were fifty-three men, and now they have but thirteen left: two babes in arms, three elders, and the rest boys too small for the boats. Even the minister is lost.
The women sit in their usual pews, hollows left between where husbands and sons sat, but Kirsten orders them forwards. All but Diinna obey, dumb as a herd. They take up three of the kirke’s seven rows.
“There have been wrecks before,” says Kirsten. “We have survived when men are lost.”
“But never so many,” says Gerda Folnsdatter. “And never my husband among them. Never yours, Kirsten, or Sigfrid’s. Never Toril’s son. All of them—”
She grips at her throat, falls silent.
“We should pray, or sing,” suggests Sigfrid Jonsdatter, and the others look at her poisonously. They have been trapped apart for three days, and all they wish to talk of, all they can speak of, is the storm.
The women of Vardø are looking, all of them, for signs. The storm was one. The bodies, still to come, will be seen as another. But now Gerda speaks of the single tern she saw wheeling above the whale.
“In figures of eight,” she says, her ruddy hands arcing through the air. “One, two, three, six times I counted.”
“Eight by six means not much at all,” says Kirsten dismissively. She is standing beside Pastor Gursson’s pulpit with its engraved stand. Her large hand rests upon it, the broad thumb working over the carved shapes her only sign of nerves, or grief.
Her husband is among the drowned, and all her children were buried before they breathed. Maren likes her, has often gone about her tasks with her, but now she sees Kirsten as the others always have: as a woman apart. She is not standing behind the pulpit, but she may as well be: she watches them with a minister’s consideration.
“The whale though,” says Edne Gunnsdatter, face swollen so tight by tears it looks bruised. “It swam upside down. I saw its white belly shining under the waves.”
“It was feeding,” says Kirsten.
“It was luring the men,” says Edne. “It set the shoal about Hornøya six times, to be sure we’d see.”
“I saw that,” nods Gerda, crossing herself. “I saw that too.”
“You did not,” says Kirsten.
“I saw the blood Mattis coughed upon the table a week ago,” says Gerda. “It has never scrubbed off.”
“I can sand that out for you,” says Kirsten smoothly.
“The whale was wrong,” says Toril. Her daughter is burrowed against her side so tight she might have been sewed to her hip by Toril’s famously neat stitches. “If what Edne says is true, it was sent.”
“Sent?” says Sigfrid, and Maren sees Kirsten turn a thankful eye upon her, thinking she has found an ally. “Such a thing is possible?”
A sigh comes from the back of the kirke, and the whole room turns towards Diinna, but she tilts her head back, eyes closed, the brown skin of her throat gleaming gold in the candlelight.
“The Devil works darkly,” says Toril, and her daughter presses her face beneath her shoulder, cries out in fear. Maren wonders what terrors Toril has woven into her two surviving children these past three days. “He has power set above all but God’s. He could send such a thing. Or it could be called.”
“Enough.” Kirsten breaks the silence before it can deepen. “This will help nothing.”
Maren wants to join her in her certainty, but all she can think of is the shape, the sound that brought her to the window. She had thought it was a bird but now it looms bigger and more unwieldy, five-finned and upside down. Unnatural. It is impossible to stop it leaking into the corner of her vision, even in the blessed light of the kirke.
Mamma stirs, as if from sleep, though the candles have been reflecting off her unblinking eyes since they sat down. When she speaks, Maren can hear the toll silence has taken on her voice.
“The night Erik was born,” says Mamma. “There was a red point of light in the sky.”
“I remember,” says Kirsten, softly.
“And me,” says Toril. And me, thinks Maren, though she was only two.
“I followed it through the sky until it dropped in the sea,” says Mamma, lips barely moving. “It lit the whole water with blood. He was marked—it was meant from that day.” She moans and covers her face. “I should never have let him to sea.”
This brings a fresh wave of wailing from the women. Even Kirsten can do nothing to quell it. The candles stutter as there is a rush of cold air into the room, and Maren turns in time to see Diinna striding from the kirke. What words Maren could offer, as she puts her arm about Mamma, would be bitter comfort: There was nothing for him but the sea.
Vardø is an island, the harbour like a bite taken out of one side, the other shores too high or rocky for boats to be launched. Maren learnt nets before she learnt hurt, weather before she learnt love. In summer her mother’s hands are speckled with the tiny stars of fish scales, flesh hung out to salt and dry like white drapes of baby’s swaddling, or else wrapped in reindeer skins and buried to rot.
Pappa used to say that the sea was the shape of their lives. They have always lived by its grace, and long have they died on it. But the storm has made it an enemy, and there is brief talk of leaving.
“I have family in Alta,” says Gerda. “There is land and work enough, there.”
“The storm did not reach so far?” asks Sigfrid.
“We will hear soon,” says Kirsten. “I imagine they’ll send word from Kiberg—the storm must surely have struck there.”
“My sister will get a message to me,” nods Edne. “She has three horses, and it is only a day’s ride.”
“And a rough crossing,” says Kirsten. “The sea is still fierce. We must allow them time to reach us.”
Maren listens as others talk of Varanger, or more outlandishly, Tromsø, as if any of them could imagine life in a city, so far away. There is a small disagreement about who would take the reindeer for transport, for they belonged to Mads Petersson, who drowned alongside Toril’s husband and sons. Toril seems to think this gives her some standing over them, but when Kirsten announces she will care for the herd no one argues. Maren can’t imagine starting a fire, let alone keeping a herd of high-strung beasts through the winter. Toril likely thinks the same, for she drops her claim as quickly as she took it up.
Eventually the talk falters, finishes. Nothing is decided except that they will wait for word from Kiberg, and send for it if it does not arrive before the week is out.
“Until then, it is best to meet daily at kirke,” says Kirsten, and Toril nods fervently, in agreement for once. “We must watch for each other. The snows seem on their way out, but there’s no telling.”
“Watch for whales,” says Toril, and the light hits her face so Maren can see the bones work beneath her skin. She looks ominous, and Maren wants to laugh. She bites down on the tender spot on her tongue.
There is no more talk of leaving. Walking down the hill homewards, Mamma clinging so tightly it makes her arm ache, Maren wonders if the other women feel as she does: bound to the place now more than ever. Whale or no whale, sign or not, Maren was witness to the death of forty men. Now something in her is tied to this land, as tied as she is trapped.
Nine days after the storm, the year newly turned over, the men are brought to them. Almost whole, almost all of them. Laid like offerings on the small black cove, or else risen by the tide to the rocks below Maren’s house. They must climb to fetch them, using the ropes knotted strong for Erik to fetch eggs from the birds’ nests woven into the cliffside.
Erik and Dag are amongst the first to come back, Pappa amongst the last. Pappa has one arm, and Dag is burnt, a black line drawn from left shoulder to right foot, which Mamma says means the lightning struck him.
“It would have been quick,” she says, not hiding her bitterness. “It would have been easy.”
Maren presses nose to shoulder, breathes herself in.
Her brother looks as though he is sleeping, but his skin is filled with that horrible green light she knows from other bodies brought in by the tide. Drowned. Not so easy.
When it is Maren’s turn to descend the cliff, she retrieves Toril’s son, snagged like driftwood on the sharp-toothed rocks. He is Erik’s age, and his body slips about in its bones like jointed meat in a sack. Maren smooths his dark hair away from his face, picks a whisper of seaweed from his collarbone. She and Edne must tie him by the waist and ribs and knees, to keep him together as he is drawn up to his mother. Maren is glad she can’t see Toril’s face when she is brought her boy. Though she is not fond of the woman, Toril’s keens prick at Maren’s chest like tiny needles.
The ground is too hard for burial, and so it is agreed that they will keep the dead in Dag’s father’s first boathouse, the cold keeping them frozen as earth. It will be months before they can break the surface to bury their men.
“We can use the sail as a shroud,” says Mamma, after Erik is taken to the boat shed. She eyes the mended sail where it lies in the centre of the floor, as if Erik is already beneath it. It is exactly where they had dropped it nearly two weeks before. Maren and Mamma have been dancing around it, neither wanting to touch it, but now Diinna snatches it up and shakes her head.
“A waste,” she says, and Maren is glad: she can’t stand the thought of sending her father and brother into the ground with anything more of the sea upon them. Diinna folds the sail with deft movements, resting it upon her belly, and in her decisiveness Maren sees some of the girl who married her brother, laughing, a summer ago.
But Diinna disappears the day after Dag and Erik are brought back. Mamma is frantic that she has left to bring up the child with her Sámi family. She says some awful things, things that Maren knows she doesn’t mean. She calls Diinna a Lapp, a whore, a savage, things Toril or Sigfrid might say.
“I always knew it,” Mamma weeps. “I should never have let him marry a Lapp. They are not loyal, not made like us.”
Maren can only bite her tongue, and rub her back. It is true Diinna’s childhood was spent travelling, living beneath changing stars even in winter. Her father is a noaidi, a shaman of good standing. Before the kirke was more fully established, their neighbour Baar Ragnvalsson and many other men went to him for charms against rough weather. That had stopped lately, with new laws brought in to ban such things, but still Maren sees the small bone figures that the Sámi say will protect against bad luck on most doorsteps. Pastor Gursson always turned a blind eye, though Toril and her ilk urged him to come down harder on such practices.
Maren knows it was only Diinna’s love for Erik that made her agree to live in Vardø, but she doesn’t think Diinna would leave like this, not when they have already lost so many. Not with Erik’s baby inside her. She would not be so cruel as to take the last part of him away from them.
Within the week, they receive word from Kiberg. Edne’s brother-in-law comes with news that besides numerous boats moored in the harbour, they lost only three men. When the women gather in the kirke to hear the message, it stokes their unease.
“Why did they not fish?” says Sigfrid. “Did Kiberg not see the shoal?”
Edne shakes her head. “The whale neither.”
“So it was sent for us,” whispers Toril, and her fear spreads across the pews in muttering waves.
The talk is too loose for a sacred place, full of omens and embellishments, but no one can resist the chance to gossip. Their words are like links they can hang fact upon, tightening with each telling. Many of them seem past caring what is true or not, only desperate for some reason, some order to the rearrangement of their lives, even if it is brought about by a lie. That the whale swam upside down is now beyond question, and though Maren tries to shore herself against the creeping terror their talk brings, she can’t hold steady like Kirsten.
The woman has moved into Mads Petersson’s house, the better to care for the reindeer. Maren regards her, standing firm by the pulpit. They have barely spoken since Kirsten dug them from the snow, except to exchange words of sorrow when their men were pulled rotting from the sea. Maren thinks to speak with her as the kirke meet comes to an end, but Kirsten is already out of the door, striding to her new homestead, bent against the wind.
Diinna is back the day they find Pappa. The first Maren hears of her return there is shouting at the boathouse and she runs, imagining all sorts of things: another storm though she can see for herself the sunless sky is calm, or a man found yet living.
There is a cluster of women about the door, Sigfrid and Toril at the fore, their faces twisted in anger. Before them stands Diinna with another Sámi: a short, square man who watches the women coolly. It is not Diinna’s father, but he has a shaman drum at his hip. Between them they hold a furled length of silvery cloth. As Maren comes closer, dizzy with the effort of running, she sees it is birch bark.
“What’s the matter?” she asks Diinna, and Toril answers.
“She wants to bury them in that.” The woman’s voice is close to hysteria. Spit flecks her chin. “Like they do.”
“Makes no sense to use cloth, not for so many,” says Diinna. “This is—”
“And I will not have that, not near my boys.” Toril is panting worse than Maren, looking at the drum as though it were a weapon. Sigfrid Jonsdatter nods her approval as Toril plunges on. “Nor my husband. He’s a God-fearing man, and I’ll not have you near him.”
“I don’t remember you minding my help when you wanted another baby got upon you,” says Diinna.
Toril puts her hand across her belly, though her babies are long born. “I did no such thing.”
“I know as well as any that you did, Toril,” says Maren, unable to keep silent at the lie. “And you, Sigfrid. Many of you came to her, or her father.”
Toril narrows her eyes. “I would never go to a Lapp sorcerer.”
There is a collective hiss. Maren steps forward, but Diinna puts her arm out.
“I should put a hole in your tongue, Toril. Perhaps it would let some of the poison out.” It is Toril’s turn to shrink. “And it’s not sorcery, and it’s not for them.”
Diinna turns to Maren. She is beautiful in the bluish light, the planes of her face strong, her eyes thickly lashed. “It’s for Erik.”
“And my father.” Maren’s voice breaks. She cannot bear to separate them, and Pappa loved Diinna, was proud of the match made for his son.
“He has come back?” Maren nods, and Diinna clasps her shoulder. “And for Herr Magnusson, of course. We will watch them. And any others that want it.”
“And will your mother be happy with this?” Toril rounds on Maren, and she is too weary to do anything but nod, her head heavy on her neck.
Eventually it is agreed that anyone who wants the Sámi rites for their men will be taken to the second boathouse, that was to have been Maren’s home. Only two men are moved in next to Erik and Pappa: poor Mads Petersson, who has no family to speak for him, and Baar Ragnvalsson, who was often gone to the low mountain and wore Sámi clothing.
. . .
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