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Extract from The Mercies

Vardø, Finnmark,
north-eastern Norway
1617

Last night Maren dreamt a whale beached itself on the rocks
outside her house.
She climbed down the cliff to its heaving body and rested
her eye against its eye, wrapped her arms across the great
stinking swell. There was nothing she could do for it but this.
The men came scrambling down the black rock like dark,
swift insects, glinting and hard-bodied with blades and scythes.
They began to swing and cut before the whale was even dead.
It bucking and all of them grim and holding like nets tight
about a shoal, her arms growing long and strong around it
– so wide and fierce she held it – until she didn’t know if she
was a comfort or a menace and didn’t care, only watched its
eye with her eye, not blinking. Eventually it stilled, its breath
melting out as they hacked and sawed. She smelt the blubber
burning in the lamps before it stopped moving, long before
the bright roll of its eye beneath her eye wore down to dullness.
She sank down into the rocks until she stood at the bottom
of the sea. The night above was dark and moonless, stars
scarring the surface. She drowned and came up from sleep
gasping, smoke in her nostrils and at the dark back of her
throat. The taste of burning fat caught under her tongue, and
would not be washed away.

One
The storm comes in like a finger snap. That’s how they’ll
speak in the months and years after, when it stops being only
an ache behind their eyes and a crushing at the base of their
throats. When it finally fits into stories. Even then, it doesn’t
tell how it actually was. There are ways words fall down: they
give shape too easily, carelessly. And there was no grace, no
ease to what Maren saw.
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 Mother 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 navy 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.