Today's Reading

A tale is but half told when only one person tells it.

Icelandic proverb, from The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Stykkishólmur, Iceland, November 1686

The day the earth shifts, a body emerges from the belly of the ice-crusted sea. Bone-white fingers waving, as if alive.

The men and women of Stykkishólmur stumble into the cold air, cursing as the tremors shower tufts of turf onto their heads. But the sight of the arm, beckoning them towards the frozen water, freezes them in their tracks, half-finished words left unspoken, mouths agape.

The men surge forward, scrambling over the wrinkled hillocks of solid seawater. It is hard work. He struggles among them, cradling the throbbing wound in his side. His tattered breaths rip from him with every jolt of his sealskin boots on the ice.

Behind him, safe on snow and frozen soil, people are watching. He can feel them weighing his every step—hoping for the ice to give way.

He remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in. The sea had swallowed it immediately, the flash of white vanishing into the darkness. But the knowledge of the body stayed, like the blood-spattered scenes at the end of the Sagas: those age-old, heat-filled stories, which are told to children from birth and fill every Icelander with an understanding of violence.

Six days ago, he had muttered a prayer over the black water, and then they had laboured back to the croft. The ice had crusted over the hole by moon-down, and by the time the pale half-light of the winter sun seeped into the sky, the snow concealed it. Weather masks a multitude of sins.

But the land in Iceland is never still. The grumbling tremors or the sucking of the waters must have dislodged the stones, and now the body has bobbed upwards and broken through the cracks in the ice. And here it is. Waving.

He slips and falls heavily, grunting as the smack of the ice throbs through his side. But he must carry on. He heaves himself upright, gasping at the pain. The ice creaks under his boots. Beneath him, the black water gulps, endless and hungry. He eases himself forward.

Gently. Gently.

The earth shudders again—no more than the shaking of a wet dog, but it throws him to his knees. The world reduces to grating, shifting sheets of ice. He lies face down, gasping—waiting for the crack that will echo like a shattering bone. It will be the last noise he hears before the sea swallows him.

The ice stills. The world stops shivering. Silence settles.

He pulls himself to his knees and the two men alongside him do the same. They exchange a look, eyebrows raised, and he nods. The ice groans.

Underneath, the dark current seeps, like a secret.

'Hurry!' one of the people on shore calls. 'Another quake will take you!' He sighs and scrubs his hands through his hair.

'It would be best left,' says one of the men, who is tall and black-eyed, as if he is formed from the same shifting, volcanic rock as the land.

The third man, light-skinned and red-haired, like a Celt, nods. 'Until the spring. More light, the ice will thaw.'

He scratches his beard, then shakes his head. 'We must get it out now...I must get it out.'

The taller of the men scowls, his dark eyes blackening further. 'Go back,' he says. 'Don't risk yourselves.'

But now the other men shake their heads too. 'We stay,' says the taller man, quietly.

The crowd on the shore still watches: ten people, but their excitement and whispering make them seem more. They are muttering in huddles, mouths hidden behind mittened hands. Their words make grey clouds of sound in the cold air—poison circling like a miasma.

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