Story — From the January 2013 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Story — From the January 2013 issue
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.
Magnus inevitably started to splay his feathers at the girl: Would she like to listen to his radio? To look at his stamp collection? To sit a while and discuss the transmigration of souls? He also gave her cookies. She did love to eat, especially when a man gave her something with sugar in it. One day, after he had spent the morning in a chair in the stable, smoking while she mucked the stalls, he invited her to help him minister to some foreign sailors who had run aground on the beach. He gave her a little time to clean herself first. That she not only went along, which she could hardly have refused to do, but also applied pigmented powder to her face might satisfy some that she planned to do immoral things. Be that as it may, no such sailors existed.
On the road, while they walked, the pastor spoke of profound mysteries. Unnur found them unanswerable and yawned, wishing for coffee. He led her to a sheltered place in the precarious rocks. He was propounding a theory, of his own invention, that true mercy could show itself only in backward forms — in the disguise of punishment, for example, or in the wish to do what was otherwise disgusting.
This discourse had not gone long before he hugged her roughly. They struggled. They had gone too far from town for anyone to hear her shrieking. She fell on the sloping ground. She reached behind her for something to throw and came up with only a handful of dirt. She got to her feet, threatening him with it.
The pastor prayed aloud that she should have compassion on him. His heart was like the hearts of other people, a Christian heart. And he tugged at the knot in his tie.
Unnur cursed and threw the dirt at him. It only dusted his pants. With beatific, welling eyes, and one hand still plucking at his throat, the old man forgave her for the dirt, he forgave the dirt itself, and he lunged for her. She grabbed her head and ducked, and his free hand swiped the empty space before him. His foot reached toward a place that didn’t exist.
“Damn it, Mother!” he hissed as he fell backward, all his limbs swimming, and landed headfirst with a crack on the rocks behind him.
Say what you will about the girl, she belonged only to herself, and wasted no time examining her horror or ogling the scoundrel’s bloody skull. She saw right away that the whole sorry sequence of her previous employments was coming back like a bull chasing her, this time with its horns down. She was not going to wait here to be denounced, and condemned, and hanged.
So she sneaked up the beach to the next settlement, stole a bicycle from a cow barn, provisioned herself from an unlocked pantry, and fled north into the barren interior. She didn’t want to be an outlaw or a hermit. She wanted to live among other people and to be clean, and for the men to leave her alone and the women to respect her, but wherever she went people would make all these things impossible, and she was so angry she cursed aloud at the trail, the bicycle, clouds. Her belongings rode in her canvas bag, which she had tied with twine to her shoulders. On the third day of her trek, a stone lodged in one of the bicycle’s sprockets and broke the chain.
“Get behind me, Satan,” she said, pushing the bicycle, stomping down the ashy path. She would not have known how to head back now even if she had wanted to.
Then, far across the treeless expanse of moss and rubble she had just traversed, a spot appeared. At length it showed itself to be moving, and as it grew it took the shape of a horse and rider pulling a dray. With no place to hide, she turned and continued walking, steady on her feet, making as though she owned the whole country. She came to a path of heavier cinders that more closely approximated a road. She followed it as the figures pursued her. Her diaphragm would not go down far enough to let the air in all the way. The horse and its person went behind a butte, then reemerged on the butte’s near side. Soon she heard the horse’s hooves. In a spasm of dread and resolve, she turned and stabbed her feet in the ash and faced her pursuer as he approached.
The horse was shaggy, skewbald, rusty and white. Its yellow beard whipped in the wind. In the saddle sat a mound of ash with a man stuck in it. The head bent, the face hidden. His scrambled hair was flecked with lava dust. The horse kept on coming at her. It sneezed. The rider’s head fell back. His hair came away from his eyes. His mouth fell open.
He was the recluse Gudmundur Jökulsson — she knew him at once. And he was asleep.
It was untrue what one heard — that the recluse’s crooked devil hips made him go sidesaddle. He sat upright even in sleep, tottering only at the neck, feet loose in his stirrups, the horse’s flanks squeezed between his legs.
She snapped her fingers at the horse, but it never even broke its pace. It passed her right by and kept going.
It was about midnight. Low sun. She continued into the particulate cloud the dray had raised. She was nineteen, alone in high wool stockings, her foolish red hair stuck all over with cinders. The road turned to follow a glacial riverbank from which junipers grew like mangy fur in thickets that she would have liked to destroy. Rain. Then hail: a continuous volleying of bird shot. And she started to cry.
The trail switchbacked toward a high ridge. Birds squabbled for shelter amid the foliage of the only tree. The bicycle punished her on the slopes, but she would not give it up. She came to the top — no, nearly. Then the top at last, and a valley spilled under her, glowing with pink lichens, moss, and heavy tides of grass under the low clouds. Some structures were submerged in the greenery, their walls broken down, their turf roofs subsided. One habitable homestead sat in a mown field. In the open mouth of the stone barn a hay rake presided, its wooden wheels rotting, a tarp tied over its teeth. She saw for many miles. Nobody about. The nauseating recognition that bad luck was forcing her to do something shameful sent a thrill of freedom through her heart. She went toward the homestead in longer paces, down the valley wall, to the field, to the doorway of the barn. Her sinners’ legs carried her under the timber lintel.
Inside, a chair, a jacket folded on it. The dray parked in the shadows. Straw and pebbles underfoot. Dank. She went through a swinging door, and the sudden dark engulfed her. Somewhere the horse was breathing slow and stertorous. She groped for it. A girl and a horse alone in the dark. A dream of speed. It was late summer. She had not known proper darkness for months, and the building seemed to expand, the invisible walls to race away. The horse’s vaporous breath came to her hand.
Then a rustle as of a chicken scrambling, some yards off. A run of wet and helpless human coughs. The dusty floral smell of hay.
“Hello, sir? Is there someone there?” Dizzily searching out the lost door. She cleared her throat. “My name is Hallveig Jónsdóttir. It’s — it’s raining.”
His voice, when she heard it, did not come from anywhere in particular but from the building itself and the space it enclosed, which now coextended with the limits of the universe and also with the limits of her mind. The smell of meat and coffee on a man’s breath. Then a flame. Around the flame, a lamp formed.
He was unafraid, unstartled, as though he expected her. Even freshly woken up, the eyes behind the lamp were wide with trust. The skin of his face was tighter and more placid than she would have expected from a man his reputed age. His solitude had preserved him like vinegar. His clothes were many layers of filthy rags.
She was — she was looking for a night’s rest in the stable, if he didn’t mind the intrusion. She had lost the road. Had she woken him?
Not really, the recluse said, he was only napping. He couldn’t stay awake these days. A flu that hadn’t left him in a year. He said, “I sleep where the wind blows me down,” and laughed.
A blanket on the straw on the floor had his shape in it. The bearded horse watched her.
“What a lovely beast,” she said. She gave it her hand to smell, but it turned away and huffed.
“Don’t listen to such softhearted nonsense, my dear,” he told the horse. “You’re a homely nag, that’s all.”
He smiled, sneezed, and went back to smiling.
He led her out of the barn. Her brain whirred with fear and plots. She followed him across the sodden yard, fizzling with hail, into his house, a plastered room with a wooden kitchen attached and a ladder going to a loft with a room he said she could use. At the door he tied on his lambskin house shoes. The red back of his neck was crinkled like foil.
“May I go up now?” she asked.
“I’ll show you the pantry,” he said, “in case you should need.”
The rained-on talcum covering Unnur’s hot face was like a clay mask as it dried. Behind his lamp he showed her through his stacks of pickled tripe to the lean-to with a basin in it that constituted the kitchen, and he gave her a cup of tinny water that smacked her throat. He hoisted her bag. She followed him up the ladder.
He swung open the door to a room that had a cot, a chair, a vanity with the mirror missing from its frame; she stood outside the room looking into it as he waved the lamp around, stooping under the eaves.
Hail besieged the house while she slept.
In the morning, having discovered the state of the bicycle, the recluse insisted she let him see to its chain. He arranged the bicycle in the kitchen on its derrière and shoulders, his admiration undisguised. He said to the bicycle, “My, but I’ve always hoped to meet one like you up close.”
Coffee burbled. With ceremonial attention, he put a nail to cook in the fire, inserted it in the place of the busted pin, trimmed it, and whacked the molten point to give it a second head.
“Where are you traveling,” he asked, “with your hair done up so nice?”
“You’re handy there, for someone who doesn’t use a bicycle himself,” she said.
“Why, thank you. I must say, however: chains are chains.” He coughed. Liquid rose to his throat and he swallowed it.
“And you’re done with farming now?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” he said. “My neighbor Ólafur in the next valley has borrowed my herd until I’m well again. Pity we’ve had such lovely summers when I have no use for them. My Birgitta would have delighted in all the figworts. That was my dear wife while she lived. You might even sow a vegetable garden. I myself don’t care for vegetables.”
“And you would really kill any lost lamb that merely crosses your fence like people say?” she asked, intending to corner him somehow, but he only turned a pedal with his hand, while the spinning spokes hypnotized him.
“That depends if I was hungry,” he said. “No one down there can say I ever billed them for the grass consumed, or for the shotgun shells they owe me.” The sound chain ran smoothly over the sprockets, and he greased it with lanolin.
“Heavens, I did sleep well,” she said.
“That room was my Birgitta’s sleeping place when we quarreled,” he said. “It has her spirit in it, so I sleep down here or in the barn. She gives me dreams. Yesterday, I dreamt I saw her on the trails. I wanted her to turn around and look at me, but she wouldn’t do it. She sometimes used to look right at you, just from your asking with your mind.”
Unnur blew, blew again, sipped, but recoiled as the coffee burned her mouth. Her throat shook and the coffee went in.
“Dark and peaceful, the upstairs, isn’t it? I hardly go up there any longer. My lungs.”
“But you’re hale. From your chin up, I’d put you at forty-five. Smooth as a tongue.”
“I’m descended from kings and seals, that’s why. However, my lungs have sand in them these days. Will you take porridge? You ought to fortify yourself. I’ll need to set off this morning for a visit at my neighbor Steindór’s, that way.” He pointed west through the wall as though he were outdoors. “You’re welcome to come along. If we leave this morning, we’ll arrive — I’ll guess tomorrow night. I have their spots. Do you see?”
He turned, pulled his shirt down, and showed the gray, sealish splotches that mottled his shoulder.
“Remarkable! I only descend from some Jón, unfortunately. Or so my mother told me. I won’t be going along, however, thank you. I am heading — I am heading to — I am heading to the capital,” she said with the vigor of someone who has just made up her mind. “You even have, somehow, the whiskers of a seal! Porridge would be lovely.”
She went to the back of the house and did her ablutions. The recluse lent her a lump of rendered fat and ash to soap herself with, but he owned no mirror. She was not going to attempt a reorganization of her hair without a mirror to look at. She daubed her face with fresh powder.
“Finish up now,” he called.
She called back, “I will, however, take a ride as far as the Thingvellir road, if you know it. I’m quite lost.”
“That is a fine road,” he said from within. “There’s a lake on the way, warm enough to swim in where the hot spring bubbles it, and not the least bit haunted.”
With the bicycle packed in straw in the dray, he mounted the horse. He offered a hand to help her up. She quavered, as though second-guessing, then took his hand and mounted, and they headed south.
She strove in vain to keep track of the compass points. Soon they were in badlands unlike any through which she had been traveling. Ferns grew around lurid ponds where the water was thick as paint. They began to ford a slough, the current of which rose to the horse’s knees, then to its belly, so that Unnur had to fold her feet under her. “Where are we going?” she asked, hiding her alarm in impatience. “The other side,” he said, pointing. The horse found a bar in the slough and took them upstream awhile, finally crossing a shallow current to a meadow, where it bowed to graze, but the recluse goaded it on. Silt sheeted the horse’s flanks. “That draw hasn’t made a current in fifty years,” he said.
She held the recluse’s ribs. A cloud bank approached, low and striated.
“It’s so rough here!” she said. In fact, the road was no rougher there than anywhere else. She lodged her foot between the saddle fender and the horse’s coat and gripped the recluse’s ribs more tightly.
“No need to cinch me now, she won’t buck,” he said.
Unnur clasped him still harder.
He warbled like a loon.
All her muscles from neck to fingertips drew tight as a bow. She pivoted her foot against the saddle, heaved, and pitched the poor bastard off the horse.
He fell in the ashes. She grabbed at the reins. Her thieving hands shook with joy.
The horse bounced and whinnied. She pulled herself forward, fixed her feet in the stirrup irons, stood, and squeezed the animal between her knees, loosing the reins and hollering at the horse to giddap. It started to jog.
In the ashes, the recluse exclaimed, “Whoa there — my neck!”
The horse kept on, faster. Its ears swiveled backward in tandem like the heads of owls. Suddenly it pulled up short, its shoulders twisting.
She slapped its head.
From behind her, the recluse was calling, “Marta, dear.”
Unnur kicked the horse with her heels, trilling, punched its neck, and stood up.
“Marta, love,” he said, clicking his tongue at the horse.
Despite Unnur’s efforts, the horse came about and trotted toward the place where its companion sat dazed in the ashes. She clawed at the animal; it only snorted.
He spoke to the horse in lullaby tones, beckoning with his long arms in the speckled sun. The horse bowed and sniffed him.
Unnur turned around and scrabbled over the horse’s rump into the dray. She kicked the bicycle to the ground, leaped out herself, righted the bicycle, wobbled, pushed hard on the pedals, wobbled some more, and finally cruised ahead the distance of a few paces, at which point the tires spun beneath her and sank in the loose ash.
She fell off the bicycle; she stood up, making to run. Before she knew it, the recluse had her from behind by the hair.
“Let go,” she cried. “You’ll rip it!”
But the hair came right off its moorings. She turned around, slapping him and snatching at the waxy, pumpkin-colored thing he held in his fist with dumb infant appetite and desperation.
Her nape and temples screamed where the glue was torn. The horse just stood there.
“Give back my hair!” she demanded.
“Hallveig, I believe I’ve fallen down,” he said, “will you help me?” But something was the matter with his senses and he collapsed, gripping the hair instinctively.
“Give it to me,” she said, kicking his hands.
He said, “I don’t understand.”
“You’re not old Gudmundur Jökulsson. Give it to me!”
“Of course not. I’m — ”
“I knew it. You faker.”
“My name is Örn. Was it Gudmundur you were looking for? He’s been dead for ages. I could show you his house if you’ll help me up.”
Unnur spat but missed. “You’re a liar and your clothes are falling apart. Who would want you?” she said.
“What is this?” he asked. “Did I tear part of you off? I’m sorry!”
She snatched the hair — in her fist it became a wig again, and it couldn’t fool anybody into thinking she was pretty — and ran.
When the storm caught her, she was upright, stomping, shoulders square, looking for cover. She was on a ridge, perhaps a mile beyond the horse and the impostor.
The rain fell everywhere in swirling curtains. She found a cave. There was nothing anywhere to burn.
She slept. She awoke in the middle of the gray night, and the rain was still coming down. There was nothing anywhere to eat. She slept again and awoke again. The rain had stopped. She went to the mouth of the cave and looked down through the void of shadows into the valley, where the horse was still standing over the man, whoever he was.
If she went down there — but she mustn’t go down there.
Yet if the gospels meant us to care for our enemies, no one better fit the category than the man who had tortured her hair. It was beyond use now. It was just a kind of skimpy rope. Across her scalp, the knotty patches where once the grease had burned her were bald and wet and cold.
Moss like a ragged awning dripped from the lip of the cave.
When she reached the impostor, he was a twisted bundle under an oilskin shroud of raincoat with a head pointing out at one end. “I thought you were better than us,” she said. “I thought you were one of the hidden people and you could take care of yourself.”
“You did?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
His hair was like roots in the mud, and his face was white and sickly and smeared.
He said, “Did you put a spell on me, my dear?”
“And what if I did?” she said.
“Put me by the fire,” he pleaded, “I need to get warm.” But of course there was no fire. She rifled through his bags and found a piece of mutton sausage. It tasted as good as life.
He had not only gotten sick, or sicker, in the rain but had damaged his head when she had thrown him from the horse. A lump like a child’s fist was growing under his scalp. She chewed. She took some of the meat out of her mouth as if to feed it to him, but caught herself in time and stuck it back in.
She sneered and swallowed.
In the bowl of the valley, she held the horse’s reins, willing herself to get going and to whip the animal until it forgot him. But she only stood there a while. Quiet as thought. The man shivered in his sleep, stinking.
He awoke and asked for water and for her to lie down and warm him (he seemed to mistake the muck for a feather bed) and to be moved up on his side, but gentle — his head and neck: something was the matter — so he could relieve himself. Her stomach convulsed. She wanted to hit him in his rigid neck.
But she rolled him, slow, while he called to Jesus Christ and the spirits. She got down in the slop and put her hand under his sweltering head to keep it still while he coughed. His hair smelled like a rotted mattress. She soaked her skirt hem in water and washed his face.
The horse knew the way back to the farm. It was not the road to Reykjavík, so it was the wrong road. In the dray behind, Örn spoke only in tongues, or else spoke mumbled nonsense emphatically, to some object his eyes followed.
Her heart whammed away at her chest as though with hatred for its jailer, and her fingers shook. Her clothes reeked of his clothes.
She tied him to a sled and pulled it through the door of his house. Soon it became clear that the entity with whom he had been trying to gibber was his dead wife. Once installed in his bed, he began to speak with her in clear Icelandic. Long discourses on subjects of former consequence. Grass and chimney stones. Private conjugal slang. Once, he said, “Here, I found your spoon.”
He lay in a nest of quilts, sweat-sleek with his limbs drawn tight, like a trussed bird. His yellow-white hair stood erect. An odor came off him, sharp, of menthol and roses. He awoke and unfolded himself. He showed his sallow eyes and smiled.
“Lord, pardon the smell,” he said.
“Sit up and we’ll get you washed.” She helped him take off his clothes.
“Every part of me is falling down,” he said and laughed with the shamelessness of the dying, to whom modesty over a breast or a scrotum has become a rueful joke.
“Don’t be vain,” she said. She wrung a cloth and handed it to him.
“May I be vain of you?” he asked, dabbing himself.
“Nothing to be vain of here,” she said.
“Why do you say such things?”
“Because I’m so ugly!” she cried.
His health began to turn around, even while life escaped him like an evaporating fluid. He went to the kitchen pump to wash on his own, but less of him remained to keep clean. All they had to eat was tripe and coffee. She had him stand at the open stove while she dried him off. His color had turned. He was like pinewood all over. He had never bathed so often. The smell persisted.
The equinox passed. The long dark was setting in. She found a knit green hat in the vanity drawer and wore it day and night. She found a book of sagas under the sink and brought him out to a chair in the home field at noon to get some sun on him, and he listened to her read.
He came and went from his mind as freely as a barn cat.
While she cut his hair, he said, “It’s about time, my dove. And where’ve you hidden my socks?” She took them off the rack above the stove, where they were drying after she had washed them. The diminished lump floated on his head, black. Some of his hair came right off by its roots in her hand. Her face did not contort when she cried, but simply leaked.
He sniffed the socks and eyed her from under his wet bangs as she trimmed them. He said, “You know I don’t mind that you’re plain.”
She lay in the upstairs at night watching the faceless vanity. “Hallveig,” Örn called from below. “Won’t you come down and be by me?”
“Listen to me,” she said, “you are a delirious old man.”
“But I love you,” he said.
She had never heard these incredible words used aloud before — maybe in a radio play.
“I love everything about you,” he said. “I even love the way your bottom hangs down in your skirts.”
“Be quiet,” she whispered.
“Do you remember when I brought the salmon to your sister’s house?”
Over the bureau, a stuffed goose peered at her with hatred from the next world.
“That was your Birgitta,” she said. “Shut up and leave me alone.”
“So much roe in one fish. Where did you run off all this time?” he asked.
“I’m dead,” she said.
“So they say. But do you really think you can fool me? I know every mole on your back.”
With steadfast lurching steps, Örn came alive again as winter descended. He had teeth and toenails and a taste for coffee as a midnight snack. He was strange company, or rather it was strange to be accompanied and to be someone else’s company; it would promise at first to make survival more pleasant, but before long it would make survival both less pleasant and less likely. She did not — she did not like — she did not like any of this.
Later, a rainstorm left the valley a lake of muck through which a yearling lamb came tottering into the home field and bleated tenderly at the house. It might as well have made a formal request to be assassinated.
Örn looked out the window and took down his gun and headed to the door.
“Don’t you dare shoot that thing, it’s lost,” Unnur said from her stitching place in the dark by the stove, where she was mending the hem of his bedsheets, looking with her fingertips as winters before had taught her to do.
He broke open the breech and pushed a shell into each barrel with his shaking thumb.
“It’s November,” she said. “He isn’t part of any crowd coming to overrun you. He’s just lost from the summer. He — he must have been wandering since roundup. He’s been alone out there for half his life.”
“And thieving pasture the whole time,” Örn said.
“Look at the poor lad — glowing,” she said softly.
Örn stood old and small in the doorway, aiming the gun. It was lunchtime, the sun way under the horizon. He was so small and dear under his trimmed hair. The jug-handle profile of his exposed ears. For a moment, in spite of common sense, he was the recluse and her hidden man all spun together, and also the prince of mercy who came to her in dreams holding out a piece of chocolate.
The knots in the floorboards were faces rebuking her.
Hardly strong enough to break an egg, her convalescent —
But the smoke blew up all around him, the ghost light coming through it. The report shouted in the quiet house. He shot again. He staggered and cursed. She dropped her sewing and pushed him aside and ran out. The lamb was nowhere. Yet there was no place in miles for it to hide. Ravens screamed in crooked circuits over her head.
“Look at you,” she said, turning back to the seducer in the doorway. “Risen from the tomb when there’s something to kill, you are.”
Everything was dun and drab in the wet meadow. The lamb had vaporized.
“Where did he go?” Örn asked.
“To the devil, that’s where. He’s a sending to show you where you’re headed. You villain. You killer!”
“I missed, however,” he said. The breech cracked open and cracked shut.
“Don’t you laugh at me,” she said. “I’ll take the horse and you’ll never see us again.”
“My sweet girl. You went to hell and came back, didn’t you? You’re the sending. Here’s the only place for someone like you. Come help me to bed, I’m tired. They’ll tear you apart.”
She came to him in fever visions. A girl and her collar. Yet the collar did not belong — my, but what a dream he’d been having these last months. The blue-black arctic-winter midday light came in around his girl from behind, hiding her face. Under the green woolen hat she always wore, the great, square, redoubtable head, the girl come home at last to whom the hat belonged. She must have been —
But no, she wasn’t. How long was he going to stay in bed and hope? That girl was all made up. He had invented her so that she might bless him — as though blessings could be arranged for and did not come to us freely and continually through avalanches and accidents and typhus and blunders, double crosses, misidentifications, slanders, failings, killings of the wicked and the true.
In later years — after that winter of delusions and fevers that God had sent him in order to cook off the last toxic anticipations that Birgitta might simply climb out of the loft one morning and apologize for having briefly taken leave of him by dying — he would become a different man. Himself, only more so, and cleaner. He ordered proper clothes and laundered them monthly even in winter. Some rascal had stolen his mare and left a bicycle in exchange, but where was it written that a man his age could not learn to ride a bicycle?
And what a figure he cut at roundup, gliding over the cinder road above a pair of wire orbits, a spruce and cheerful fellow who called everyone “my dear” — “my dear boy,” “my dear woman,” “my dear old friend” — but who possessed no one of his own, and was possessed by no one. Like a general before an army of saintly clowns, he coasted down the slope to town with all his sheep hustling behind, to the long, unassuming concrete shelter under a blue tin roof, where they would be sheared and slaughtered.
You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
More from Salvatore Scibona: