Authors: Cecelia Holland
Tags: #Historical Fiction
To the memory of my grandmother
There was a farmer named Hoskuld, who lived in the west of Iceland, who was called Walking Hoskuld because he was so tall no horse could carry him. By a handfast marriage he had a son whose name was Bjarni. One day while they were cutting driftwood Bjarni said that he wanted to leave Iceland.
His father put the axe down head to the ground and stared at him. “Where did you have in mind to go?”
“Vinland. Or Norway.”
“Well, you’d better choose between them, you fool, they’re in two opposite directions.”
Bjarni reached for his own axe and set to chopping at the log at his feet. Hoskuld was still. Bjarni could feel his gaze on him.
“That’s my thanks,” Hoskuld said, “for fathering you in the first place and feeding you thereafter. Now when you are big enough to help me, you will walk away without a look back.”
Bjarni said, without stopping in the work, “Ulf can help you.” Ulf was Hoskuld’s second son.
“Ulf! Ulf does nothing except dream about women.”
Bjarni chopped through the log so hard the two pieces flew up off the sand. He picked up the wood and carried it to the cart fifty feet away.
When he came back, his father was still staring at him. “Why?”
Bjarni stooped for his axe. Hoskuld gripped him by the shoulders of his shirt and yanked him back up.
They were face to face; there was no difference between them in height. Bjarni said nothing. Hoskuld slapped his cheek.
Bjarni slapped him back as hard as he could. “That’s an answer.”
Hoskuld seized his axe. Bjarni set himself, his fists raised between them. At length Hoskuld laid his axe back on his shoulder.
“Small thanks a man gets from his children these days. In the old days it was different.” He walked down the beach. Bjarni followed him, wary. He did not turn his back on Hoskuld the rest of the day.
It was summer, and the light stayed in the sky from sundown to sunrise. They took the cart back through the hayfields to the farm their family had worked for two hundred years. The path climbed the hill toward the buildings, half a mile away. Above the homestead the slope turned steeper, and at its top the rock cliff burst out of the green grass and stood up hundreds of feet sheer into the sky; on this rock cliff the ravens nested, and so the farm was called Hrafnfell, the Raven Roost.
The six farm buildings below the cliff were sunk halfway down into the ground, the aboveground walls built of lava blocks, and the whole roofed over with sod. Besides Bjarni and his father, Hoskuld’s three other sons lived there, and his wife and his stepson. On the hill above the buildings was the woodyard. Bjarni and Hoskuld unloaded the wood they had taken from the beach and stacked it.
As they led the horses and cart into the yard below, the cookhouse door opened, and Hoskuld’s wife came out. She carried a round basket of bread in one arm and the mead jug in the other. Her name was Hiyke. Bjarni watched her pass by him. She was Hoskuld’s third wife, much younger than he, only seven years older than Bjarni: Hoskuld saw him with his eyes on her and swore.
“That’s why!” He had a bridle in his hand; he whipped it at Bjarni’s head. Bjarni caught the leathers and pulled the bridle out of his father’s hand.
Hiyke was watching them. “Do you never tire of it?” she said to Hoskuld. “What are you fighting about now?”
“See she does not find out,” Hoskuld said to Bjarni. He took the jug in his right hand and his wife’s arm in his left and went into the hall. Bjarni took the horses into the barn and tended to them; he did not go into the hall that evening.
WHEN THE SUN ROSE above the cliff Bjarni brought in the goats to be milked. He tethered them in the barn and watered them. Climbing the ladder to the loft, he lay down on his back in the straw and made poems in his head. Below, the barn door creaked. His stepmother came in to milk the goats.
The wit for poetry left him. He lay still in the deep straw listening to Hiyke directly below him. She spoke humorously to the goats. Presently the jets of milk began to play into the bucket. Bjarni rolled over onto his stomach. Carefully he pushed the straw aside. Through the chink between the boards of the loft he looked down on her.
Her hair was black. He had spent long hours here thinking of ways to describe it but all his words failed him. She wore it pulled tight over her head and braided, and the braids coiled over her ears.
His brother Ulf came into the shed, yawning, his fair hair shaggy. “Is Bjarni here?”
“I have not seen him,” Hiyke said.
Bjarni said nothing, loathe to let her know that he had been watching her. She held the bucket between her knees as she milked; the goat took a step away and Hiyke spoke to it. Ulf was coming up behind her, which had startled the goat.
“Give me a sup of the milk,” he said.
“Keep your hands off the milk,” she said.
“Have you not seen Bjarni? He must be here.” Ulf walked away from her, toward the ladder. In the loft, Bjarni pulled the straw over the chink in the boards and rolled onto his back.
Ulf came up the ladder. “Ho,” he called. “What are you doing up here?” He strode across the loft, stooping under the rafters. He was a big man, although not so tall as Bjarni.
“What do you want?” Bjarni said to him.
“I thought you were going to Eirik Arnarson’s.” Ulf came down on one knee beside him.
Bjarni rested his head on his arms. “Hoskuld is right,” he said to his brother. “All you think about is women.”
“Who said anything of women?” Ulf said, smiling.
“Why else would you go to Eirik Arnarson’s?”
Ulf laughed his roaring laugh. “Are you up here dreaming about vikings?”
Bjarni went over to the ladder and started down it into the bottom of the shed. Hiyke passed by him, carrying the pail of milk toward the door. He tore his gaze away from her.
“Why are you going to Eirik Arnarson’s?” she said. She put down the pail and lifted her shawl over her head.
He muttered something and took the pail from beside her feet. The door hung open. He walked into the brilliant sunshine.
BJARNI AND ULF went off around the bay toward the farm where their chieftain Eirik Arnarson lived, up on the northern shore. Ulf rode his grey mare and Bjarni walked. Eirik Arnarson’s farm was less than five miles away over the water, but the walk around the bay took them into the afternoon.
The chieftain’s home was set in the shelter of a hillside. A wall of lava chunks surrounded the buildings. Ulf tied his mare’s reins to the gate. Bjarni asked at the hall and was told that Eirik had gone up the hill to oversee the haying.
Ulf had gone indoors. Bjarni followed the path up the hill. The hayfield was on the lee above the farmhouses. The three workmen had cut the hay and were going through the field raking it up into mounds. On the high side of the field, the chieftain sat on his horse watching. When he saw Bjarni he raised his hand and shouted a greeting.
The wind was blowing steadily off the ocean. Bjarni climbed up into it as he crossed the slope. He shook hands with Eirik and they said the usual things. Eirik called to one of his men. Bjarni stood back to let them talk. Over the ridge to the west that sheltered the hay-fields lay the broad ocean. To the east the cinder mountains began, treeless and streaked with ice. Bjarni squinted, straining his eyesight, to catch a glimpse of the glacier.
Eirik rode by him. Bjarni went along at his stirrup, and they started down the hill.
When they were down in the lee of the hill Eirik turned to him. “Bjarni Hoskuldsson, I’m very glad to see you. What brings you here?”
“That which we spoke of at the Thing,” Bjarni said. “I have talked to Hoskuld, and he is interested. We will buy half a shipload of timber the next time you send a fleet to Vinland.”
Eirik stroked his beard with his fingers. “What did your father say about the price?”
“My stepmother’s loom is far-famous. We have several hundreds of her cloth.”
“For a shipload I shall need ten hundreds, and that is only because your family and mine go back so far together.”
“Half a shipload,” Bjarni said.
“That will leave half a shipload unsold.”
Bjarni shook his head. “Half a shipload only. I am not a merchant. All I want is wood to use on Hrafnfell.”
“Hoskuld might think differently.”
“Perhaps. He usually leaves such things to me.”
“Yes, he is wise to do so. Have you considered the other thing we talked of at the Althing?”
At the Council of Iceland he had offered Bjarni work in his trade with Vinland. Bjarni said, “I have thought of it—I don’t want you to think I would pass over it lightly—”
“But you will not take it.”
“I don’t have my father’s permission yet to leave home.”
“Permission!” Eirik Arnarson said. “Just go.”
Bjarni said nothing to that. They were coming to Eirik’s yard. The chieftain leaned forward suddenly in his saddle. He had seen the grey mare at the gate.
“Did you come here alone? Your brother Ulf came with you, didn’t he?” He shouted to his horse and galloped away.
Bjarni followed him into the yard. Eirik rushed into the hall. In a few moments Ulf appeared in the loft window of the hall and jumped down to the ground. His shirt was unlaced and he had his belt in his hand. He hurried toward Bjarni, who went to the grey and untied her reins.
Eirik came out of the hall again.
“I told you to stay away from her! By Christ my Judge, if I find you with her again—”
Ulf jumped onto the mare’s back. Bjarni went ahead of him out the gate.
“Don’t come back,” Eirik shouted. “I will take a whip to you, you horse-eating pagan pig!”
“You might try, Cross-kisser,” Ulf said.
“I’ll thrash you bloody-backed!”
“Old man, you talk too much!”
Bjarni led the mare by the bridle onto the path. He raised his hand to Eirik Arnarson. The chieftain did not answer his wave.
BETWEEN EIRIK ARNARSON’s FARM and Hrafnfell on the south shore of the bay were four other farms. Hoskuld had a fishing ship called
; from these other four farms came men to crew her. They sailed out onto the ocean and searched for the cod, swimming in schools of thousands off Iceland.
Hoskuld found the cod by the whales and grampuses feeding on them. He stood in the stern of his ship, with the spoke of the steerboard braced against his thigh, and shouted to the oarsmen to hold. Bjarni sat at his bench in the stern just forward of his father. A wave lifted the ship up high and he looked across the broad grey sea. Half a mile away the cod-whales were basking on the surface, but the sun was under clouds.
Hoskuld tramped down the spine of the ship. “There’s a good risk of fog. We’ll try the net. Bjarni and I will tow it out.” In the bow, his younger sons were already hurrying to put out the small boat. They did not move fast enough for Hoskuld, who swore at them and kicked them. Bjarni shipped his oar.