On the Cold Coasts


The novel Galdur, translated to English by Alda Sigmundsdóttir.

On On the Cold Coasts:

When a fleet of one hundred English ships is caught in a horrible storm off the cold coasts of fifteenth-century Iceland, twenty-five ships are lost. For Ragna, the daughter of a respected family and betrothed to Thorkell, her relationship with one of the seamen washed ashore results in pregnancy. Now barren due to a traumatic childbirth and stigmatized as a fallen woman, she is left with no prospects for marriage when the betrothal is ultimately canceled.

A decade later, Ragna becomes a housekeeper to the new English bishop in North Iceland, where passionate and ambitious Thorkell is a priest and steward. They embark on a fervent but doomed love affair as priests cannot marry and Ragna will not be a concubine. Little does Ragna know but her host, the bishop, is instigating the conflict between the English and Nordic settlers to his own gain, with a devastating impact on his housekeeper.

From On the Cold Coasts:

The girl on the bedstead screamed and clutched desperately at the older woman sitting next to her, as yet another contraction coursed through her body. Her blue-gray, bloodshot eyes widened horribly, like they would urst from their sockets. The midwife wiped sterams of sweat from the girl's forehead with a linen cloth and brushed her straight, black hair to one side.

Hush, child, she said wearily. This hysteria will only make things harder.

Ragna Gautadóttir made no reply. She barely heard what was being said anymore. She had been in labor since last night, and it was now past noon. Daylight had come and gone in a heartbeat, and twilight had once again descended on the snow-covered land. Outside was a cold and dark kingdom. It was the thirteenth day of January, the feast day of St. Hilary.

In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, said the Lord to Eve, and thy desire shall be to thy husband. But there was no husband in the vicinity, and she who was enduring this sorrow was barely a woman herself.

The linen shift, soaked through with perspiration, clung to her body, clearly revealing the constriction of her taut belly during the contractions. Occasionally, in between, there was a billowing movement as the unborn child moved inside her. The child was impatient to see this world, unaware of all the toil and trouble that awaited it, ignorant of all that was and would be. Better if it had never been conceived, and best if it dies, Ragna thought as she had a thousand times before, and instantly she felt ashamed of her thoughts. She stared up at the ceiling of the bedchamber and squinted to see better in the dim light of the lantern. She didn't have to – she knew precisely where it was. She had carved the letter in the rafter of the sloping ceiling above her bed: M for Michael. In her mind's eye, his boyish face appeared, pale and wan, as it had been that cursed day in April last year when she first saw him, dragged from the sea, weathered and beaten...