After Blöndal had left, Steina returned to the parlor and picked up the uneaten bowl of skyr. Cream had congealed at its rim. She shook with frustration and rage, and pressed the bowl hard into the table, biting her bottom lip. She screamed silently, willing the bowl to break, until the flood of anger passed. Then she returned to the kitchen.
There are times when I wonder whether I'm not already dead. This is no life; waiting in darkness, in silence, in a room so squalid I have forgotten the smell of fresh air. The chamber pot is so full of my waste that it threatens to spill if someone does not come and empty it soon.
When did they last come? It is all one long night now.
In the winter it was better. In the winter the Stóra-Borg folk were as imprisoned as I; we all shared the badstofa when the snow stormed the croft. They had lamps for the waking hours, and when the oil ran out, candles to keep the darkness at bay. Then spring came and they moved me to the storeroom. They left me alone without a light and there was no means to measure the hours, no way to mark the day from night. Now I keep company with only the fetters about my wrists, the dirt floor, a dismantled loom, abandoned in the corner, an old broken hand spindle.
Perhaps it is already summer. I can hear the footsteps of servants patter along the corridor, the creak of a door as they go to and fro. Sometimes I hear the shrill, piping laughter of workmaids as they chat together outside, and I know that the weather has eased, that the wind has lost its teeth. And I close my eyes and I imagine the valley in the long days of summer, the sun warming the bones of the earth until the swans flock to the lake, and the clouds lifting to reveal the height of the sky: bright, bright blue, so bright you could weep.
Three days after Björn Blöndal visited the daughters of Kornsá, their father, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson, and his wife, Margrét, set out for home.
Jón, a slightly stooped, wiry man of fifty-five winters, with snow-blond hair and large ears that made him appear simple-minded, walked in front of their horse, leading it by the reins and stepping over the uneven ground with practiced ease. His wife, sitting atop their black mare, was wearied by their journey, although she would not have admitted it. She sat with her chin slightly raised, her head propped up by a thin, tremulous neck. The glance of her hooded eyes skipped from farm to farm as they passed the small homesteads of the Vatnsdalur valley, closing only when she suffered fits of coughing. When these subsided she would lean over the horse to spit, then wipe her mouth with a corner of her shawl, muttering a short prayer. Her husband occasionally inclined his head towards her when she did so, as if vaguely concerned she might topple off the horse, but otherwise they continued traveling uninterrupted.
Margrét, having just exhausted herself with another racking bark, spat onto the grass and pressed her palms against her chest until she got her breath back. Her voice, when she spoke, was hoarse.
"See now, Jón, the folks of Ás have another cow."
"Hmm?" Her husband was lost in his thoughts.
"I said," Margrét remarked, clearing her throat, "the folks of Ás have another cow."
"Is that so?"
"I'm surprised you didn't notice it yourself."
Margrét blinked against the dusty light, and made out the vague shape of the Kornsá croft in the distance ahead.
Her husband grunted his agreement.
"Makes you think, doesn't it, Jón? We could do with another cow."
"We could do with many more things."
"Another cow would be nice, though. The extra butter. We could afford another hand for harvest."
Excerpted from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Copyright © 2013 by Hannah Kent. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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