An excerpt from the book, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

The next months are at once sharp and shapeless. There is no more talk of whether they should go to sea: they do, every week. More women join them, and soon they have three boats going regularly, even as the year switches on its heel and darkness begins to gather at the corners of the sky, like shadows at the rafters of a mighty house.

Pastor Kurtsson watches from the narrow stoop of the kirke, preaches sermons of growing intensity on the merits of obeying the Kirke and its servants. But even as his fervour builds, Maren feels a change, a turning amongst the women. Something darker is growing, and she finds it in herself, too. She is less and less interested in what he has to say, and more consumed by her work: fishing, chopping wood, readying the fields. In kirke, she finds she has drifted, like an untethered boat, and her mind is out at sea with oars in her hands and an ache in her arms.

Maren feels a change, a turning amongst the women. Something darker is growing, and she finds it in herself, too. She is less and less interested in what he has to say, and more consumed by her work: fishing, chopping wood, readying the fields.

She is not the only one losing interest in kirke ways. At the Wednesday meets, Fru Olufsdatter questions Diinna about the Sámi way of scenting fresh water, and enlists Kirsten’s help in fashioning bone figures to mark her husband and son. When Maren visits Pappa’s and Erik’s graves, she finds poorly carved rune rocks laid like stepping stones amongst the settled dirt. More than once, she finds a fox skin on the headland, its meat left at the highest point of the hill. Remembrances, charms: she recalls such things from childhood.

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She watches the women in kirke, wonders who snared it, bled it out. Who peeled the fur from its flesh and left it hollow, pinned down by rocks, an offering to the wind. She asks Diinna what a skinned fox means, and Diinna raises her eyebrows, shrugs. But whatever the hope wished over it, the women of Vardø are slipping back into the old ways, grasping for anything solid.

Toril must be unaware of it, or else she’d have told the minister. She and her ‘kirke-women’, as Kirsten calls them, spend more and more time in the kirke as the winter draws in and closes over them, atoning for the sins that took their husbands from them.

She asks Diinna what a skinned fox means, and Diinna raises her eyebrows, shrugs. But whatever the hope wished over it, the women of Vardø are slipping back into the old ways, grasping for anything solid.

Still the divide is growing, sure as a crack in the wall tapped upon by ceaseless fingers, smoothed only slightly by fuller bellies. But they are still here, Maren reminds herself. Still living. They have a system – if you need hides you go to Kirsten, swap for dried fish or thread work, which is in turn exchanged with Toril for gut thread or fresh moss from the low mountain, where she refuses to go because it is full of Sámi and once rumoured to be a witches’ meet place. All of them have their skills, their uses, interlaced and built up like a haphazard ladder, resting one atop another.

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‘It’s a sort of triumph,’ says Kirsten one Wednesday. ‘What would our husbands say?’

‘Nothing good,’ says Sigfrid. She has fallen firmly in with Toril, but can’t stand to miss the gossip of the meets. ‘Pastor Kurtsson says —’

‘Has Pastor Kurtsson planned the sermon for Christmas Eve?’ says Kirsten.

‘I imagine so,’ says Sigfrid.

‘I should like to say something,’ says Kirsten. ‘Speak on the storm. I think many of us would. It is time. I am ready.’

Maren looks around the room. She sees no likely candidates. She has no true words for it, even a year later. All of them have the same telling of the storm, now, passed through many tongues until its rough, difficult edges are worn smooth as sea glass.

‘Maren?’ Kirsten is looking at her, waiting for support. But Maren has none to give her, and nor does any arrive from Edne, or Fru Olufsdatter.

The others must feel, as Maren does, a comfort in it, all of them standing at the same point on the flat sweep of bay: as though they are collected and folded an eye behind an eye behind an eye, clustered around the same seeing scope. The storm came in like that. Finger snap. She can’t remember who first put the action to it: it may have been Toril, or Kirsten. It may even have been her. They agree on this telling, this snap of fingers, as if by accident, though it’s a sort of cowardice. She’s sure they despise her for it, as she does them. They pull it across their eyes and tongues so they do not have to really remember. How the boats were there, and then gone.

Maren looks to the window. The relentless dark has a tinge of grey to it: a fog rolling in from the north. They come sudden, swallowing, a dampening cold that penetrates skirts, stockings, makes the familiar ground foreign and strange. Out there, beyond the final row of houses, is the harbour. She watches the sea even more carefully now. She is learning not to feel much for it, with their regular fishing expeditions. But with the anniversary soon upon them, she finds she has no desire to dwell on what it took from them, least of all speak about it in kirke.

Maren looks to the window. The relentless dark has a tinge of grey to it: a fog rolling in from the north. They come sudden, swallowing, a dampening cold that penetrates skirts, stockings, makes the familiar ground foreign and strange.

She can feel Kirsten’s disappointment, and seeks her out as Fru Olufsdatter dims the lamps and tells them it is time to go.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says, touching Kirsten’s shoulder. ‘I am sure the pastor would let you speak.’

‘I don’t need his permission,’ says Kirsten, blue eyes narrowed. ‘I’ll think on it.’

Image Credit: Pan Macmillan

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Excerpted with permission from The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Pan Macmillan.

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