When the Land Darkens
The Young Man and the Walrus
Greenland’s Western Settlement, A.D. 1293
The walrus cuts through the fjord’s undercurrents, a shadow darting across the pitch-dark rocks below. A ghost in flight.
But what he seeks from the depths, that which has so often enveloped him, is all but gone.
His lungs burn, increasingly desperate for air, and yet the long wooden poles sunk deep into his body still refuse to loosen their grasp. He had been sure they would release him once he was far from the surface, but they only seem to bite harder, ever more unyielding, into his flesh and blubber, as if they have already passed judgement upon him. His wide, pale blue eyes seek the protection of the silent depths as his fear drives him ever onwards.
Five hunters, rowing to the same rhythm. With each stroke, every time each man leans towards the man on the next thwart, their strength courses through the ten-oarer. The boat cleaves the swell, spray roaring at the prow. It was once the finest vessel in all the Western Settlement.
A young boy sits on the third thwart. A light-haired, long-armed youth, his hands still lacking the heft and breadth of the men’s fists—but he rows well. The thole pins creak with his long, supple strokes, the blades of his oars twisting free of the water to leave eddies dancing on the green skin of the fjord just as violently as those made by any of the men. His arms burn, as if already strong as svarðreip, as rope made from walrus hide.
He is fifteen years old, and this is his first walrus hunt.
The boy’s face is soft and unblemished, almost like that of a young girl. As if the land that has nurtured him is yet to harden him; as if it has decided to wait before toughening this young hunter from one of the Western Settlement’s mountain valleys. He glances back over his shoulder from time to time, to the right or the left, but as yet the walrus are nowhere to be seen.
The boy has a glint in his eye, a glint of the future. He thinks of all that lies ahead of him, how this is only the beginning. How one day the walrus hunts will transport him through the wake of history to the shores of Norðsetr.
But the boat he rows is now a grey-white ghost, a skeleton. Its wooden hull, once so well-oiled and polished that it reflected the light, is now shrunken and grey, ravaged by the passage of time. The strength that once filled it now no more than a defiant memory.
Only rarely, so rarely, does the future turn out as imagined.
He swims up from the darkness, towards the light, and for the briefest of moments half his body hangs suspended above the water. An immense body, a mountain of flesh and blubber, the skin of his neck and back red and disfigured by unsightly scars and growths.
He rotates there against the sky, his long tusks and bristling whiskers pointing momentarily heavenwards as he draws breath. Then he falls, slamming sideways through the surface, beating foam into the air. His squinting eyes have confirmed his fears—they are waiting for him, there up above. There is no way out, and all at once everything is changed, for even the air he breathes and the water through which he swims are filled with the predators’ stench, and he knows he can no longer evade them.
The pain pounding within him and the fear that has so mercilessly hunted him—transformed him into a wretch fleeing the only world he’s ever known—are gone. All that remains is rage.
And so the boy and the walrus lock eyes for the first time, their gazes meeting as the beast whips back towards the boat. The men at the gunwale recoil in fear—they can see there is no stopping him. But the boy is fearless.
On the previous morning, a man had ridden up to Himin-Gorm’s farmstead at Åsastad. He was a young, red-faced man; his horse had a chestnut coat with a blaze and socks of white. Four dogs had come up and started snapping and yelping at the horse’s legs, the horse pawing at the ground and circling the otherwise empty yard, its rider unsure whether to dismount.
A heavy, dark grey wooden door had opened, and the chieftain of the Western Settlement’s mountain farms emerged to stand on the slab of stone below the eaves. He had whistled sharply; the next moment, the dogs were gone.
He’d stood there in his rough, wadmal trousers, broad-chested and burly. A sixth generation descendent of Himin-Gorm the Old, who had once stood at Law Rock when the assemblies were gathered, and proclaimed that he would never forget the betrayal of those who had turned to the new customs and the new god. And that from that day forth, such families should stay far from the farms under his command—or he would see to it that they were put to death.
Relations between the farms by the fjords and those in the mountains had been tense for well over two hundred years. Of course, their inhabitants would often meet—there would be occasional marriages between them, or they would join forces on hunting expeditions or voyages west, or on raids against the Skraelings—but the mistrust was always there, like a legacy handed down from father to son. Not a generation had passed without familial feuds, without murder and bloodshed.
Himin-Gorm had raised an eyebrow.
“It’s been so long since I last saw fjord men up here,” he said. “I’d started to hope they’d died out.”
The man was too apprehensive to recognise the playful undertone in Himin-Gorm’s voice.
“I come with a message from the lawspeaker,” he answered stiffly. “From Hafgrim of Svartfjord.”
“The curses of Greenland rarely vanish of their own accord,” he said as if to no one but himself.
Two women came out from another door in the long building. The man on horseback could hear voices inside. Still uneasy, he said what he had been sent to say:
“The walrus has come to the fjords.”
The walrus—beast of riches. Promises of ivory tusks, meat, and rope for the ships; glossy oils that would burn in the lamps through autumn and winter. No other animal provided the wealth offered by the walrus. They were once found in such numbers, such herds as to make the very beaches and rocks themselves seem alive, and the landnámsmen—the first settlers to arrive here and establish their farms—had known how to hunt them and grown rich as a result. Here in the far north they had built the finest farms in all the Norse lands; ships to equal those of the Eastmen; great halls of thick timber and stone. But just as the walrus herds had withdrawn from Iceland four hundred years earlier, so they had vanished from Greenland’s coastal settlements, and just a short time after the colonisation the walrus was almost entirely absent from the settlement fjords.
Himin-Gorm had nodded. For the past two hundred fifty years, the Western Settlement’s Althing had decreed that all farms should be notified when walrus arrived in the fjords. They all had an equal right to join the hunt.
“How many have you sighted?”
“Around thirty. Hûnvarg of the Hafgrims spotted them as they entered the fjords. They’re in Botnsvik now. The hunting party plans to set out at daybreak tomorrow, Odin’s Day.”
Himin-Gorm fixed the messenger with his gaze, biding his time for a moment, as if to mock him. Then he nodded.
“We’ll be there.”
Just a short while later, half a dozen horses had thundered out of Himin-Gorm’s farmstead to tell the twelve mountain families to prepare for the walrus hunt the next day.
Arnar had ridden with his axe in his fist that night. He could have secured it behind the saddle or hung it loosely over his back, but it sat so satisfyingly there in his hand, keeping time with the horse’s rhythm. Sometimes the iron glinted where he had sharpened the curved blade with his whetstone, glimmering like frost or dew.
He and Sel-Floke had ridden north from Dyradal, through the silent, bare hills, the sky curving high above them. The route across the broad mountain plateau towards Vassfelldragsdalen was magnificent. A fitting path for two young men riding through the late summer evening, dreaming of all that awaited them, of all the days yet to come.
Arnar had been only five years old the last time walrus had been hunted in the fjords of the Western Settlement. He remembered the carcasses on the beach, the tusks carving rifts through the shingle, the smell so rancid that he had retched, almost vomiting. He remembered the oil pits, the bloody cuts of blubber, the burning driftwood and peat. The oil that had come running out, yellow and clear; the dancing flames reflected in the eyes of the men and women who stood by, watching. How the oil had never stopped running.
They had ridden side by side every now and then during the night. Exchanging thoughts, jokes, and ideas; discussing hunting and girls and making idle conversation. Their friendship was strong, the four years that separated them of little consequence.
On the previous day, a rider from Åsastad had come thundering into Vilhjalm Rågsson’s farmstead in Dyradal. Vilhjalm and Arnar had been standing in front of the squat farm building, a turf-covered house in which the farm’s four residents lived with their animals, all under the same roof. The messenger had told them to send two men to the hunt, one of whom was to be the servant, Sel-Floke.
As soon as the rider disappeared from view, Arnar turned to his father.
“May I go too, Father?” he asked.
Vilhjalm had smiled affectionately at his son, as he often did, being a man of warm disposition. He had thought the boy too inexperienced to join a walrus hunt just yet, but he also knew that times were changing. The walrus, once so abundant, were moving ever further north; the settlement’s boats becoming more dilapidated year by year. Who could say whether this would be the last walrus hunt to take place in the fjords of the Western Settlement?
He had clasped the back of the boy’s neck and said:
“Yes. From this farm, it will be you and Sel-Floke who go.”
And in the silence, as Arnar sprinted across the farmyard and disappeared into the house, Vilhjalm thought that although his son was prone to losing himself in daydreams and forgetting what work there was to be done, and though he was at times both stubborn and unruly, he was still a good son. And though life was likely to deal him a knock or two—and undoubtably give his obstinance a beating and leave some of his dreams in ruins—in the long run, as the years went by, things would turn out well for him.
And so Vilhjalm Rågsson felt that he had glimpsed the contours of future, unknown days, the shape of things to come. Where light and darkness endlessly encircle one another as if in balance, but where nothing is what it appears to be. He turned these thoughts over in his mind as he made his way inside to help the two young men find the provisions they would need for the hunt on the fjord.
Arnar and Sel-Floke reached the southern shore of the Agnafjord at dawn, riding in the wind along a pebbled beach to the meeting place at which horses, boats, and men had already arrived. The men of the Western Settlement, of this headstrong land. Those who had refused to give in or succumb—who continued to hold on. Farmers and hunters, descendants of the earliest settlers, sons of the land’s endless familial feuds. Those who remained.
Arnar and Sel-Floke rode among them, greeting the occasional familiar face before dismounting and leaving their horses with those who would tend them. The final preparations were underway, the hunting gear being loaded onto the boats. Some of the men were already aboard, sitting on the thwarts. The first boats had just put out, with Himin-Gorm’s vessels just a stone’s throw from the others. His men seemed ready, and their oars were out.
Hands helped them aboard; smiles and greetings bid them welcome. They stood in the largest of the three boats from Odin’s farms, still holding their ropes and weapons, Himin-Gorm himself before them. He stepped forward and clasped Sel-Floke at the back of the neck, giving him a friendly shake.
“Sel-Floke! Let me tell you why I sent for you.”
Sel-Floke managed to grab the hide of Himin-Gorm’s garments, bracing himself against the shaking and quick-witted as ever in his reply.
“Because you needed at least one man who knows how to throw a harpoon?”
Several of the men in the boat chuckled. Sel-Floke was no more than a servant, and yet here he was, holding his own and making witty remarks before the chieftain of the mountain farms.
“I saw you in Sandnes this spring, when you won the servants’ spear-throwing competition,” said Himin-Gorm. “I saw you throw. That’s why you’re here, and why you’ll be bowman and harpooner on this boat.”
Eleven boats lay out on the fjord, each of their slim hulls resembling warships bearing rough-haired warriors, each man armed with weapons for the hunt: axes and hakapiks, bows and spears, harpoons extending from prows or lying across the thwarts.
Greetings passed between some of the boats. The odd conversation could be heard breaking the morning stillness, but not a word was uttered between the vessels commanded by Himin-Gorm and the boats from the farmsteads by the fjords. For few friendships crossed the lines that the men of the White Christ and the descendants of the old gods had drawn between them.
Arnar noticed the occasional curious look thrown his way from the other crews. Many took their chance to get a glimpse of Himin-Gorm, that stubborn brute of a man of whom so much was said. Wearing an open grey coat made of the pelt of a ringed seal, Himin-Gorm stood facing away from the other boats, staring off down the fjord, as if deep in thought. His skutill, the harpoon he held in one hand, had a wooden shaft as long as a man was tall, with a shining tip of grey-blue polished iron, its two barbs three and a half inches in length. A braided hide rope was attached through a hole in the iron. If the harpoon penetrated deep enough and the men pulled hard enough, this rope would be the means by which they hauled in the walrus.
Himin-Gorm’s two brothers, Steinulfur and Burfell, were oarsmen in the same vessel. Burfell was a lean, long-limbed man who seldom spoke and smiled even less, but he was regarded as an indefatigable worker who could easily hold out from sunrise to sunset. Steinulfur, the third of the brothers, was built like Himin-Gorm, thick-necked and broad-chested, but more amiable and talkative than his siblings.
Steinulfur cast a glance at the last boats to arrive, shaking his head despondently.
“Such a shame, putting something like that out to sea.”
The boats were patched with crooked, roughly-hewn bits of driftwood and sealskin. Many of the strakes were so rotten it seemed a single rough wave would smash them to smithereens.
Seeing the decay laid bare by such vessels made Steinulfur uneasy, but he was also aware that their own boat was nowhere near what it had once been. It too would probably have to be patched up with sealskin and whalebone soon enough, unless Himin-Gorm saw fit to use a couple of logs from his deep forest lake to make the necessary repairs to its hull.
Around a century earlier, there had been some ten to twelve powerful families in these settlements, with fine seagoing ships capable of sailing as far as Vinland or Iceland. The Church and many a trader had also sailed their elegant vessels here to the north. From this Arctic outpost, goods had been traded that were among the most highly valued to be found at any of the world’s markets: polar bear skins, ropes of walrus hide, live polar bear cubs, the tusks of walrus and narwhal, and white gyrfalcons. Greenland gyrfalcons. There had been years so plentiful it seemed the riches bestowed upon the settlements would never cease. But like the silver coins of Paris after Ragnar Lodbrok devastated the kingdom of the Franks, and the golden treasures aboard Harald Hardrada’s ships upon his return from Constantinople, it had all trickled away, and gradually their prosperity had crumbled. The farms were left destitute, the boats run-down or destroyed by ice and snow, others dragged ashore and left to become no more than grey skeletons in the wind.
The last voyage to Vinland had taken place almost forty years ago; hardly any of the families of the Western Settlement had the means to make such a journey now. With the exception of Himin-Gorm, only the Hafgrims of Svartfjord and a couple of other large farms still kept passably serviceable boats.
No signal was given for the fleet to depart, for there was no single leader upon whom they could all agree. But as soon as the last boat put out from the shore, the vessels began to turn up the fjord. Soon the blades of the oars carved the sea, strong backs straining at the shafts to pull each stroke through the cold water. In the wake of the boats, eddies began to ripple and swirl.
They knew how to row, these men. Even the boats that had looked the most wretched ashore gained elegance as they cut their lines through the fjord. Three ten-oarers, two vessels with four pairs of oars, four with three pairs, and a couple of smaller boats with just two oarsmen each. All left their gleaming green wake in the mountaintops’ dark shadows.
Arnar felt that not a sea creature nor sea god would have been able to stop their boat today. He knew Steinulfur and Burfell possessed incredible strength—he could feel their strokes pulsing through the hull. The others, Vermund and Gunnar, might lack the same power, but he could see that they too were highly-skilled oarsmen. And Arnar was determined to prove himself worthy of his place on the boat. From this day forward—today and on all the walrus hunts to come.
They edged ahead of a double-ended, four-oared boat from Hornfjord. Its gunwale was grey and cracked, and Arnar saw that a couple of its crew were shabbily dressed. They left them behind, catching up with other boats whose men pretended not to notice Odin’s vessel gaining on them.
At the front of the hunting party was another ten-oarer, a long, fast vessel with old runes carved into its prow. It was rowed by five men from the Hafgrim family of Svartfjord; Hafgrim the lawspeaker himself stood at the vessel’s stern. Soon the two boats were side by side, barely five fathoms apart, and through the crashing and hammering of the waves Arnar could hear the heavy breathing of the other boat’s men. Two boats of the same length, travelling at the same speed; identical bow waves rushing beneath their prows.
Without a word being spoken, both crews understood that a race had begun, their shoulders folding even further forward with every stroke they took.
Himin-Gorm’s dark figure stood erect and proud at the stern. As they rowed, his men could sense how resolutely he urged them on. They knew Himin-Gorm would gladly cut off one of his own fingers to beat the Hafgrims in a race on the fjord.
Then one of the Hafgrims turned towards them, his closed mouth like a black scar cut across the jaws of his broad face. Arnar met his gaze. The man could be barely more than eighteen or twenty years old, and yet he was huge as a troll, the tendons in his thick neck standing out like ropes. When Arnar refused to look away, the giant sneered and spat in the sea, the gesture filled with contempt. Both understood that from this day forward, there would be nothing but enmity between them.
But no matter how mercilessly the two boats drove each other onwards for the sake of their deep-rooted, mutual hate, neither was able to secure a victory before the entrance to Botnsvik opened up to the northeast. Both Himin-Gorm and Hafgrim Svarte, at the stern of the Hafgrims’ boat, were forced to halt their crews and wait, so as not to disturb the walrus before the rest of the boats arrived. They sat there, gently rocking, in the two-foot waves.
When the other vessels finally caught up, four boats were roped together in a line that spanned the shallow entrance to the cove, from shore to shore. They lowered nets and barriers into the sea below them to block the walrus’s escape.
The remaining boats then entered the bay, rounding the point that blocked their view. It was impossible to know whether the animals would still be there, or whether they had already left, and so a tense silence descended on the crews as they rowed. But when Arnar saw Himin-Gorm smile, he twisted halfway round to catch a glimpse of the beach behind Sel-Floke’s hunched back. And then he saw them—the walrus. Three or four fathoms above the high-water mark were between twenty and thirty enormous bodies, motionless, as if all dead.
The men rowed carefully, so as not to splash their oars now, the roaring below their bows reduced to the slightest ripple. If they could reach the beach without disturbing the animals, their catch would be ensured. The colossal beasts always took the shortest possible route down to the sea, and if they came hobbling along between the boats, the men would be able to thrust their harpoons straight into the animals’ backs at close range.
Seven slender hulls in formation. All boded well for the attack.
One walrus in the group suddenly reared its head, its long tusks swinging around. Had it caught a whiff of something bitter in the air? The beast’s flat face turned towards the fjord; when it caught sight of the approaching men it let out a hoarse grunt, heaved itself halfway round, and hobbled quickly towards the sea. Several of the others lifted their heads now, too, and suddenly the enormous mass of flesh and blubber had come to life. Greyish-red necks and broad backs staggered hastily towards the water, flippers slapping against rocks and pebbles. The animals rushed towards the waves as if gripped by an ever-increasing panic, grunting and groaning, each of them heavy as ten or twelve men.
Sel-Floke yelled out in the hope of scaring them back, but the animals were already in the spray—there was no turning them now. They reached the waves, heaved themselves into the water, and immediately a transformation took place. All their former stamping bulk disappeared as the walrus became nimble, flickering shadows, darting towards the abyss—towards freedom. In just a few moments, they were so deep they were beyond the reach of the men’s weapons. Steinulfur lifted one of his oars from the water as he rowed backwards with the other; several of the other men joined him and the boat began to turn.
“By Helheim and Muspelheim!” Sel-Floke bellowed. “Now prove that you can row!”
The other boats came slowly about and likewise began to row back out. They rowed in this way for a while, upwind, with Sel-Floke eagerly on the lookout like a weasel, occasionally swearing at the men for not rowing hard enough. Himin-Gorm’s eyes narrowed and darkened at the sharp reflections on the water.
When the walrus breached the waves ahead of them, Himin-Gorm lifted his harpoon, holding it at arm’s length. The shaft shook in his hands as he pointed the tip straight at where the beasts’ heads were drawing breath.
Steinulfur steered the boat in the same direction. He was rowing stroke, setting the pace for the others. As he turned the boat, he saw the iron tip of Himin-Gorm’s harpoon slowly turn towards the prow. He pulled on his oars for all he was worth.
They followed the walrus across the bay, until the creatures encountered the blockade in the shallows and turned back in confusion. They went deep again, searching for shelter other than the open sea, splitting up, no longer swimming as a group.
The next walrus to surface was already on the same course as the boats. Himin-Gorm pointed his harpoon in the beast’s direction.
“There! . . . There! . . . There!” cried Sel-Floke. “Let water spray! Make your oars weep!”
The walrus had returned to the depths by the time they had taken another two strokes, but they continued to slice their way through the water, following in the animal’s wake. Himin-Gorm’s harpoon indicated the direction in which the beast had fled, the braided hide rope dancing at the harpoon’s iron tip signalling that the hunt had now truly begun. Sel-Floke’s expletives, curses, and shrill orders continued unabated. Until they could use their weapons, this was the bowman’s most important task—to harass and frighten the animal so it would dive before it had managed to fill its lungs with air. From the other boats came the sounds of the other bowmen, each with his own refrain—some howled like wolves; others cursed and bellowed. But none could compare to Sel-Floke, who roared regardless of whether the walrus was above the water or below it, his abuse and curses echoing off the faces of the surrounding cliffs.
They rowed back and forth across the bay at the innermost end of the Agnafjord, until their arms and hands ached, until they hardly believed they had any strength left to give. But on the fifth crossing, when the walrus surfaced for air before vanishing once again, he was much closer than before, little more than half an arrow shot from the prow.
Steinulfur’s heaving breaths could be heard above everyone else’s.
“If I didn’t know it was you, Steinulfur, I’d have thought we already had a walrus on board,” Sel-Floke called out.
Steinulfur was unable to answer—he didn’t have the breath. But then the walrus leapt from the waves again, as if spat from the depths in a sudden fit of rage. An aura of seafoam encircled his head, his long cream-coloured tusks furiously carving the water’s surface. The creature’s mouth was wide open, his breath hollow and rasping. Then the sea closed over his head and he vanished once again. They were still out of range.
Himin-Gorm turned his body and the harpoon in the direction the beast had gone. Then a shadow fell over his face. Dead ahead of them was the Hafgrims’ boat, blocking their course, its oars in the water. At its stern, two men were tying a dead walrus to floats made of inflated sheep stomachs. The men on board were laughing, as if they’d just been telling a joke about the mountain folk of Odin’s farms.
Pulling hard, Burfell and the others managed to set the boat on its new course.
“Move aside!” Sel-Floke bellowed at the men in the ten-oarer.
But not a single man among the Hafgrims appeared to be rowing. One of them shook his head.
“Row around,” he called back.
But Himin-Gorm held his course; the boat had already gained momentum and was accelerating with every stroke. On the other boat, Hafgrim Svarte Hafgrimsson raised a rough hand.
“Row around!” he shouted. “We’re stringing up a walrus here.”
“Move your boat aside or go below, to the sea giants!” Sel-Floke yelled back.
Arnar turned on his thwart and saw the angry faces of the kin of the Hafgrims; the iron of the harpoons glinting at the prow. Hafgrim Svarte Hafgrimsson cried out once more.
“Row around, you mountain vagrants!”
But Himin-Gorm only smiled and jabbed at the air with his harpoon in the direction of the Hafgrims’ boat. Steinulfur recognised Himin-Gorm’s expression—he had seen it before. He shook his head as he braced himself against the thwart and floorboards, gritted his teeth, and pulled.
Arnar, too, channelled all his strength into his oars. He was determined that should the two boats collide, splintering and going under, and the walrus return as an avenging beast among the men as they flailed in the water, fighting for some remnant of the wreck to hold on to—nobody would be able to say that he had succumbed to his fear.
Further shrieking cries were exchanged between the two vessels, but their meeting was inevitable now—the Hafgrims on the central thwarts let go of their oars and scrabbled away. One of them slipped on the gunwale and fell backwards into the sea.
Then the ancient oak keel of the boat from Markland crashed hard into the gunwale of the vessel blocking its path. Its high, arched prow rose, lifting from the water, the keel and carved heads at the front heaving up and into the middle of the Hafgrims’ ship, keel and clinker-built strakes scraping and wailing as thole pins and gunwale planking gave way, splintering under the weight. When the boat stopped, it towered above its adversary like an eagle above its prey.
With his fists on the gunwale, Sel-Floke leaned out over the prow to watch the Hafgrims’ port side being pushed deep below the surface, green waves foaming over the thwarts, the water rising cold around the men’s ankles and legs. Himin-Gorm came running from the stern and up the thwarts of his ship, putting all his weight behind his steps in an attempt to destroy the Hafgrims’ boat below him.
“Force them under! Get them in the water!” he bellowed.
Arnar saw the terror that now spread among the Hafgrims, because not a single one of them could swim. The naked fear of being swallowed by the deep was evident on all their faces.
The huge young man who had stared so defiantly at Arnar as they raced threw himself down to grab hold of the clothes of the man who had fallen into the water; as he pulled, the man was cast back into the boat as if he was no more than a child, his body seemingly weightless. But water was now surging over the gunwale with increasing speed. One of the Hafgrims could be heard invoking Jesus Christ in his fear, but Hafgrim threw himself towards Himin-Gorm’s boat.
“Push the devils from us!” he yelled.
The ten-oarer rolled slightly to port under his weight. Following their chieftain, the Hafgrims now ran to join him from both sides, casting themselves at the keel and hull that had crushed them from above while Himin-Gorm, like a thundering god at the end of days, stood over them, roaring:
“Sink in Rán’s deepest darkness!”
The water was already halfway up their calves; as soon as it became level with the sea outside, their boat would sink helplessly below the surface, leaving the Hafgrims floundering in the waves.
Then suddenly there was movement. Only slight—just two or three inches. The hull that crushed the Hafgrims had shifted, and their faith returned. At the next heave, the damaged gunwale screeched, and the iron-hard oak keel slowly began to slide back to whence it came. One of the Hafgrims raised an oar, taking a swipe at Himin-Gorm in an attempt to beat him before he got away. But Himin-Gorm grabbed hold of the oar and tugged it from the man’s hands, using both fists to shoot it back at him like a spear. The oar hit the man in the chest, causing him to call out and fall backwards into the water between the thwarts.
Suddenly the boats were free, the hull of the Hafgrims’ ship rocking like a drunk. Using bailers, wooden pails, or simply nothing but their hands, the hull still rocking perilously from side to side, the men began to bail out their vessel with careful, downtrodden movements.
“You were lucky this time, fish spawn,” Sel-Floke called out. “This time you were lucky, but next time you’ll go under. Next time, fish fry, you’ll all be nothing but fish food.”
Hafgrim Hafgrimsson gripped the harpoon at the prow behind him; the huge man who had stared at Arnar cast his pail aside and took up a spear. Himin-Gorm and Sel-Floke already stood with harpoons in their fists; Burfell managed to grab a spear as Arnar bent to find his axe from under his seat.
Weapons in hand, these enemies of blood faced one another, just as they had so often come face-to-face at Blodgrasvollen, the battleground of the lineages of the Western Settlement, where so many families had been destroyed. They stood there filled with a hate wrought from former grievances; hardened by strong wills and kin who refused to forget. An old hate, but one that still glowed red-hot in its intensity.
Hafgrim shook his harpoon.
“Heathen devils! You’ve not heard the last of this!”
But the wind drove the two vessels apart, carrying one away and leaving the other—that which still sat low in the waves—behind.
The walrus cut through a world of green-black seaweed, shells, and molluscs—a gently swaying primeval forest, dark as night. Through foliage that reached out to him, whispering of times forever lost.
The roaring of the creatures from above still rang in his ears; he could sense their heavy slapping against the water’s surface. The strange, rhythmic sounds of the hunt. And with each stroke he took with his mighty flippers, each turn of his body, he felt an ominous yearning deepen in his chest.
When he again ascended from the darkness, from the world that had surrendered him, into the light, he saw it glittering like a mischievous, scintillating dawn.
He had revealed himself to them, laid bare his back, and they had thrust two spears deep into his body. From a distance of no more than three fathoms, the men had groaned as they thrust their weapons downwards, the iron tips piercing hide and blubber to pass deep into his chest and back.
For a moment, it seemed he failed to notice the spears, but then the sea around him turned a dark shade of red, and as he struggled to beat his flippers and rolled onto his side in an attempt to disappear into the depths once more, they saw him gliding slowly beneath the waves, the harpoon shafts ploughing the water’s surface above him like the masts of a ship sailing to its doom.
Then the shafts, too, were gone. Only the rancid, whale-like odour of walrus remained, along with the ever more dilute streams of blood in the patch of dark sea where he had last been seen.
But ropes followed him into the deep this time, each trailing its harpoon. Brownish-black ropes of bearded sealskin, strong as iron and bound hard as bone to the harpoon tips. Length after length of rope poured over the gunwale, and Himin-Gorm and Sel-Floke stooped to adjust the floats. Three to each rope—oval, greyish-red sheep stomachs inflated and drawn closed, tied to the ropes of hide.
They bobbed there incongruously on the surface for just a short while, until they trembled, pulling taut, as if attempting to move away from the boat. As the walrus dived deeper, they were ripped from the surface, one by one; plunged into the depths below. He must still have great strength left in him yet, this long-tusked whale-horse of the seas.
The water was choppier now. The waves beat against the hull, making the vessel shudder and roll as the wind chased along the black mountainsides of the fjord.
The men were panting again, groaning intently. And above them stood Himin-Gorm, with his hawk’s gaze fixed upon the deep.
Then the tugging on the rope released, and soon after the floats were visible once more. The men on the thwarts swung in their oars and grabbed their weapons. Himin-Gorm and Sel-Floke held on with all their might as the ropes pulled tight and the boat turned towards the ascending walrus. The gunwale was pushed low to the water as the men forged their way forward, the waves crashing against the strakes and sending spray into their faces.
The walrus breached the surface in a cascade of foam. As he circled around to swim away, two arrows pierced his body to become embedded in his blubber like stiff quills. The ropes attached to the arrows were also pulled taut, and four men began to haul him towards the boat.
The walrus heaved and struggled against them. One of the arrows snapped and the wooden harpoon shafts shook on his back, but he was unable to break free. And then suddenly it vanished—the fear that had guided his flight. It was simply no longer there, and so he turned sharply towards the men, his breath like a panting moan, advancing in rage. Steinulfur and Gunnar grabbed hold of their spears and swung them forth, like lances from a parapet. He charged into them, forcing the men who grasped them to stagger backwards, like reeds in the wind. His tusks were raised as if to strike; gleaming whiskers and eyes distorted beyond reason.
And so their eyes met. Those of the boy and the walrus.
Seven men stood at the rope, all straining against the beast in the waves, believing that only the final notes of the hunt’s melody now remained to be played.
But now, as the water droplets on his head glistened like pearls of iron, and as some of the men were driven back by his sheer force, Gunnar and Vermund felt their courage slip away, and they recoiled to avoid being struck by his tusks.
But Himin-Gorm did not recoil. For the rage that burned in him towards any living being that dared to oppose him—whether animal or human—was untameable, inextinguishable. And so by virtue of this rage, he went up against the beast from the depths.
Arnar, too, stood firm as the spears snapped like dry shafts of bone around him and the sounds of the animal and the sea rose into a crescendo. Life itself seemed to sing within him—this was why he was here.
As another wave crashed towards the boat, and as destiny and the powers that preside over all living beings held back time for just a moment, as if to fantasise about the outcome of the imminent encounter, Arnar stood there, directly in the path of the animal’s onslaught, and when the moment had passed, and the walrus’s head, like a battleground of scars and healed gashes covered with water droplets sparkling with rainbows, hurled towards him, he swung the head of his axe above him in a long, shimmering arc.
He brought the blow down at the intersection of two scars, where they formed a rough cross. The blade cut through skin and bone to sink deep and hard into the walrus’s skull.
The beast turned sideways towards the gunwale, then thrust himself backwards, out into the sea. Other weapons immediately came forth—axes and spears were thrust into the walrus’s body, now in its death throes, the strength that had driven him onwards now gone. The waves that rolled over him had already begun to wash the blood from his wounds.
After the hunt, as they rowed towards the southern end of the Agnafjord towing three walrus carcasses behind them, Steinulfur turned to Arnar.
“That blow you struck today, Arnar—that’s a blow you’ll be remembered for.”
“It didn’t take much,” Arnar replied. “All I had to do was stand firm when he came.”
Vermund glanced at Arnar then, to see whether any contempt lurked beneath his words, but there was no discernible insult or mockery in his face. Only an open smile, which seemed to Vermund to proffer nothing but goodness; a surety that all the mysteries of the world would one day be revealed.
But when Himin-Gorm spoke from his position at the stern, Vermund had no doubt that contempt nevertheless existed among them.
“Indeed, the most important thing is to stand firm when the walrus comes,” said Himin-Gorm. “It shouldn’t take much—and yet not everyone is given to do so.”
He stood on the beach at the southern end of the Agnafjord. It was evening, and most of the sixteen walrus slain during the hunt had been hauled ashore. The inhabitants of the surrounding farms had arrived, and here and there, in small clusters along the shore, the butchering had begun. Blubber flensed from the carcasses was placed in the stone pits on glowing coals, and covered. Soon the oil would start to run.
The men from the fjords butchered their carcasses, while Odin’s men butchered theirs. They eyed one another with suspicion, keeping their distance, but the scene was bustling, the air filled with laughter. Children played; a group of boys ran from walrus to walrus arguing loudly about which one had the longest tusks. Two horses and half a dozen men and women hauled yet another beast ashore using a strong length of rope.
High above, seagulls and terns drew their expectant circles over the people and dead beasts below.
The walrus lay at his feet. Its wounds, flushed pale and repulsive by the sea, were no longer bleeding. Greyish-black sand from the beach below streaked the animal’s hide.
He bent down and took hold of a tusk in an attempt to move the great creature, but it barely shifted. He got down on one knee, about to whisper to the beast, wishing to honour it with his words in the way he knew hunters of old sometimes honoured the animals they had slain—but he was interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps. When he lifted his head, two girls were standing before him. One of them was staring at him boldly, meeting his gaze; her eyes were green, inquisitive, and clear. The plait of shiny brown hair trailing over one of her shoulders was as thick as her arm. She must be several years younger than him. He couldn’t remember having seen her before—she was probably from one of the surrounding coastal farms.
“Did you kill it?” she asked.
“Why do you hunt such ugly animals?”
Her words were impudent, but her expression curious. He got up, not knowing how to reply. The mighty walrus lay there at his feet. He was the animal’s slayer; she, just a young girl, and yet her eyes seemed to be laughing at him.
She glanced at the walrus again, stretching out her foot to touch the creature with the toe of her dainty goatskin shoe, then looked back up at his face.
“No, really, why do you hunt such ugly animals?” she asked him again, even more unabashedly than before.
Her friend could no longer contain herself—her giggling burst out into laughter. All the dignity he had felt while alone suddenly vanished.
“He’s not ugly.”
“Not ugly? He’s the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen.”
Her eyes were so strangely bright in her tanned face, framed by her strong, straight brows. He wanted to give her a cutting answer, but she mimicked his gestures; her arms loose at her sides, her mouth contorted into a contrived grimace. Her friend’s gleeful laughter returned.
“So run back home to your mother,” he said. “Then you won’t have to look at him.”
The smile that had been hiding behind her eyes as they spoke suddenly broke forth—she had a scintillating smile, luminous as a ptarmigan’s winter plumage. She tilted her head slightly, as if waiting for a moment to see if he would say more. When he remained silent, she shook her head.
“You’d do better to hunt a nice animal next time,” she said in a condescending tone. “Not an ugly, stinking sea creature like this one.”
She pursed her lips, as if grimacing at the smell of the yet unbutchered walrus. Then she grabbed her friend by the hand, and off they ran.
He stood there for a while, watching them as they disappeared among the crowds along the beach. Then he squatted back down and took hold of the walrus’s tusks, one in each hand. They were solid, cold to the touch. As he tugged on them, he might have imagined the power they once held, but his thoughts consisted only of the green, mysteriously glittering eyes of the girl who had stood before him.
translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
For her excellent translation of Tore Kvæven's work, Alison McCullough is one of two runners-up in the 2019 Close Approximations Translation Contest in the Fiction category. Read judge Edward Gauvin's citation and discover the other contest winners here.