Story — From the January 2013 issue

The Hidden Person

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All her things fit into a canvas bag, and she took it with her everywhere. It weighed about as much as a hen. She kept a pot in it because you never knew when you would need coffee. She wore a black sweater suit, a knit shawl, nothing memorable — except that her throat and clavicles were sheathed in a stout white collar that went right up to her jaw and made of her young face a forbidding object. Her skin was bad, coarse, her knuckles bulbous. But she was clean. Her bright hair maintained its shape even in the weather. Her conversation was always a little in disarray, which suited unfussy movement from this to that. If she had a few krónur she spent them, usually on makeup from a catalogue. Her mind was a house she had built alone and furnished with hearsay picked up from the stables and the streets. She had lived all over the eastern part of the country and much of the south.

Her name was Unnur. She came to this parish during a period of glorious weather. Perpetually snowbound inland valleys had turned into excellent pastures. Free hands for any kind of work were scarce. Even suspect girls like herself were getting hired in the houses of decent people. But unfortunately she fell into the employ of Magnus, the layabout who played the pastor at the church here, and of Fritha, his wife. Magnus did treat the girl in a Christian way at first. He praised her stitching, for example.

Unnur had come here from an eastern parish where the people had accused her of petty crimes on the order of eating cakes, boxing the ears of highborn children in her charge, and stealing fancy lady things; and everybody had heard of a certain calamity that had befallen her in childhood, so naturally people began to concoct invidious fables about her from the moment she arrived.

The calamity had gone like this: Some time ago, on the eastern fjords, there was a smallholding where a widow lived and where the parish sometimes put foundling children. After a spring thaw, the widow’s brother set out to visit her. As he approached, a ghastly smell nearly turned him back around. Deep in the cotton grass, at a distance from the house, the widow’s corpse was rotting.

Inside, Unnur sat stitching by the stove. Her scalp was stuck here and there with patches of scabrous rag. To burn off Unnur’s fleas, the widow had doused the girl’s head with boiling grease. She was eight years old, gray, exceptionally well mannered, and starving. Someone had stolen the salt cod they had put away for winter, she explained. After the widow had succumbed, Unnur had dragged the body into the snow with the help of the horse, which had since wandered off.

She brought the visitor some coffee, apologizing that she had no food to offer. Then something happened that would form the key to all the allegations that later trailed her. The visitor gave her a piece of chocolate, and rather than eat it right away she put it in her sweater pocket.

The girl might have nursed the old woman to the end, but maybe not; she might have scrupulously divided whatever food had remained, but who could prove she hadn’t hidden some extra portion for herself? Here the sweet that went right into her pocket was evidence enough for the jackals who hunt sin over coffee in the kitchens of country towns. In any event, the authorities of that parish decided she probably had some demon in her blood and shunted her down the coast. So began the career of rambling that led her to the pastor’s house in Bjarnavík, where the new prosperity bewildered everyone and the farmers were coming down after roundup driving flocks fat with mountain sedge.

It was a year after she arrived that some ewes went missing. This happened far beyond the glacier, but Unnur was wary anyway. Slanders generally stuck to her like tar. Soon a couple of lambs turned up with hocks that bled from sores in which lead shot was discovered. She rested a little easier: to turn a firearm on a healthy sheep was outrageous, but it was not witchcraft.

Only someone with contempt for society could have done such a thing. And in fact the flocks at issue had been climbing in a range that belonged to just such a figure — the recluse Gudmundur Jökulsson, who had purchased that whole far valley back when nobody else could extract a living from the ice. Now buttercups and grass were growing thick as a beard up there, if you could believe it, and hardly a hoof on the place. Nobody had asked his permission to graze in his range because no one had seen the recluse in recent times. His actual existence came into question, and thus his property rights. Some alleged he belonged to the race who live among us unseen, except when they choose to show themselves, the people Eve did not have time to wash as children and hid from God because she was ashamed.

Everyone hated the recluse, so Unnur knew he was a saint. When she raised the question of his being one of the hidden people to Fritha, the old woman told her to shut her mouth. There would be no talk of such creatures in that house.

But Icelanders had been contending with hidden people since the first settlement, and if there were no hidden people, how should Unnur account for the slovenly friend who sometimes, when she was alone in a cave or a dark room, came and showed his back to her? She had not come so far on her own by disbelieving her wits.

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’s debut novel, The End, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and winner of the New York Public Library’s 2009 Young Lions Fiction Award. He administers the writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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