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Authors: Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

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My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland

BOOK: My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland
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M
y
Soul
to
Take

A
Novel of Iceland

Yrsa Sigurdardottir

TRANSLATED FROM THE ICELANDIC BY BERNARD SCUDDER AND ANNA YATES

HarperCollins e-books

Prologue

February 1945

THE CHILD FELT
the cold creeping up her legs and back, and she tried to sit up straight in the front seat to get a better view. She peered into the white snow surrounding the car, but could not make out any farm animals. It's too cold for the animals outside, she thought, wishing she could leave the car and go back inside the house, but she didn't dare say a word. A tear crept down her cheek as the man beside her struggled to start the engine. Pursing her lips, she turned her face away from him so that he wouldn't notice. He'd be so angry. She looked at the house where the car was parked and looked for the other girl, but the only living creature in sight was the farm dog, Rover, sleeping on the front steps. Suddenly he lifted his head and stared at her. She sent him a weak smile, but he stretched out again and closed his eyes.

The car sputtered to life and the man straightened up in his seat. "About time," he said gruffly as they drove away. He glanced at the girl, who had turned back to look straight ahead. "Well, let's take a little trip." She bounced around in her seat as they drove along the rough, bumpy track leading away from the house. "Try to hold on," he said without looking at her.

At last the car reached the road and they cruised along in silence for a while. The girl looked out of the window in the hope of seeing some horses, but the landscape all around was deserted. Then her heart skipped a beat when she realized where they were.

"Are we going to my house?" she asked hopefully.

"You could say that."

The girl sat up even straighter and observed the scenery more closely.

In front of them was familiar countryside, and clearly visible in the distance the rock that her mother had said was a troll who had turned to stone at daybreak. Instinctively she craned forward to look at it. A car appeared at the crest of the low hill ahead, driving toward them. It looked like a military vehicle. As they slowed down, the man ordered her to keep her head out of sight. Not unaccustomed to hiding, she did so without hesitation. He clearly agreed with her grandfather that nothing good ever came from the army. Her mother had whispered to her that soldiers were perfectly normal men, just like Grandfather. But younger. And better-looking. "Just like you." The girl remembered how sweetly her mother had smiled at her when she said that.

The child heard the other vehicle approaching, getting louder until they passed each other and then fading away. She wriggled in her seat.

"You can sit up," the driver said, and she did so. "Do you know how old you are?" he asked.

"Four," she replied, taking care to speak clearly as her grandfather had taught her.

The man snorted. "You're really scrawny for a four-year-old."

Although the girl didn't understand the word "scrawny," she realized that it was not good to be like that. She said nothing. There was a silence.

"Do you want to see your mum again?"

Her eyes widened and she looked up at the man. Was she going to see Mommy? Just thinking about it made everything okay. She nodded eagerly.

The little girl's thighs no longer ached from the cold. Everything would be nice again. They turned down the road she knew so well. She saw her home and smiled for the first time in ages. The car drew up to the house slowly and stopped. Entranced, she stared out at the large, imposing house. It looked so sad and lonely. No lights, and no smoke from the chimney.

"Is Mommy here?" she said fretfully. Something strange was going on. The last time she had seen her, her mother had been lying in bed in a room in the man's house. She was sick, just like Grandfather had been, with no one except her daughter to help her. Perhaps Mommy went back home the night after she vanished from the bed? But then why had she left her with the man? Mommy wouldn't have done that.

"Your mum isn't exactly here, but you'll still see her. You can be together forever." He smirked, and the girl felt uncertainty creep into her happiness, but she dared not ask any questions.

The man threw open the car door and got out. He walked around and opened her door. "Come on. You're going on a little journey before you meet your mum."

Cautiously, the girl climbed out of the car. She looked all around, hoping to catch sight of someone or something to encourage her, but could see nothing.

The man bent down to take hold of her mittened hand. "Come on, I'll show you something." He pulled her along with him and she almost had to run to keep up with his long strides.

They went behind the house to the cattle shed. A stench rose to greet them, becoming more rancid the closer they got. The little girl wanted to hold her nose but didn't dare. The man's expression implied that he could smell it too. When they reached the shed, he looked through a window, too high for the girl to reach. He leaped back, his hand over his mouth. She hoped nothing awful had happened to the cows, but she noticed that there was no sound from inside. Maybe the cows were asleep. The man tugged her onward again.

"Bloody disgusting," he said. W
hen they had walked a short dis
tance from the cattle shed, he stopped and looked at the expanse of snow. He relaxed his grip on the girl's hand. "Where the hell was it?" he muttered irritably. He scuffed at the snow with his shoe.

The child stood still while he searched in the snow. She wasn't happy anymore. Mommy wasn't here. She couldn't be under the snow. She was ill. Swallowing her sobs, she half whispered, "Where's my mommy?"

"She's with God," he answered, still poking around with his foot. "With God?" she echoed, baffled. "What's she doing there?" The man snorted. "She's dead. That's when you go to God."

The child didn't really know what that meant. She had never met anyone who was dead.

"God's good, isn't He?" She wasn't sure why she said this. She knew the answer, because her mother and grandfather had often told her. God was good. Very good. "Will she come back from God's house?" she asked hopefully.

The man exclaimed triumphantly and stopped digging. "Here it is! At last." He bent down and dusted the snow from the ground with his gloved hands. "No, no one comes back from God. You'll have to go to Him if you want to see your mum."

The girl stiffened. What did he mean? She watched as he brushed the snow away to reveal a familiar steel hatch, the one in the field where her mother had forbidden her to play. Could God be down there?

The man stretched before bending down again to open the heavy trapdoor. Glancing at the girl, he smiled again. She wished he wouldn't. He beckoned her over. Hesitantly, she walked toward him and the yawning black space that had been revealed beneath the hatch.

"Is God down there with Mommy?" she asked tremulously.

The man was still grinning. "No, He's not there, but He'll come and fetch you from there later. Come on." He gripped her skinny shoulder and pulled her closer to the hole. "It's a good thing you've been baptized. God doesn't let anyone in who hasn't been baptized. But let's hope God remembers you, because He can't check the church records." The man's smile turned even colder. "Maybe we should make doubly sure and go through the ceremony again. I don't want God to refuse to take you." He laughed quietly.

The girl was not listening. She stared into the abyss as if hypnotized. Her mother would never go into a hole like that. She heard the man muttering something about "a quick baptism" but only looked up when he spun her around to face him, placed his snow-filled palm on to her forehead, and said, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen." He opened his eyes and stared at her.

Although her forehead stung terribly from the cold, the expression in his eyes chilled her more. She twisted her head away and put her hands in her anorak pockets. She was frozen, and her woolen mittens offered little protection from the sharp wind. She felt something in her right-hand pocket and remembered the envelope. A deep apprehension seized her, momentarily eclipsing her fear of the man. She had promised her mother that she'd deliver the envelope, and now it seemed that she would fail her. This was the last thing her mother had said to her, and the child remembered clearly how much it had seemed to matter. She felt a tear trickle down one cheek. She couldn't give the envelope to the man, because her mother had expressly told her not to. Biting her lower lip, the girl didn't know whether to speak or keep quiet. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished that instead of standing here she was lying by her mother's side and that nothing had changed. Then she opened her eyes and they were still standing there, she and the man. A sense of hopelessness overcame her and she wept silently, letting the tears run down her cheeks into her scarf.

The man took her by the shoulder again. "God will give you a good welcome now. Do you know any prayers?" Nervously she nodded. "Good." He looked down into the hole. "I'm going to put you down there now, and God will come and collect you later. It's best if you say your prayers until He comes. You'll be cold, but then you'll fall sound asleep and before you know it you'll be with your mother in heaven."

At this, the child started crying harder, trying desperately to stifle her sobs. This wasn't right. Why couldn't God just come and get her now, if He was so good? Why did she have to go down into that dark pit? She was afraid of the dark, and this was a bad place—her mother had told her so. The girl looked at the man and knew she was going down there whether she wanted to or not. She was rooted to the spot although her instincts told her to run as fast as she could. Through the tears in her eyes she looked at the hardened face of the grown-up and begged in a small voice, "Please." The man simply stared back and his expression showed no mercy. "Please," she repeated. "Please don't make me." The man did not dignify her pleading with an answer but put his hands under her arms and lifted her up, then slowly lowered her down into the hole. The little girl sobbed as her body began the descent. "Please don't." She turned her head to see her home for the last time, and stared in astonishment at the gable window facing them. Someone was standing there, watching, but the window was too dirty and the house too far away for her to see who it was. Finally her terror overcame her fear of the man and she began to thrash around in his grip, screaming as loudly as she could. The person in the window needed to know she did not want to go into the darkness. "Idiot," the man muttered and he released his grip. The girl fell into the black abyss and landed with a thud some feet below. She tried to get up but her leg was hurt. "Please don't leave me," she yelled at the face she could make out staring at her from above. It was all she could see as all around her was blackness darker than the darkest night. She tried not to give in to the terror she felt. God was good. It wasn't a ghost at the window. God was good. And the low, mournful wailing she could hear down below was
not
the crying of the dead children. God was good. Mommy said so.

It was much colder inside the hole than outside. She tried to raise herself up as the floor was even icier than the seat of the car had been. Her injured leg sent a jolt of pain up her small body when she stood up so she immediately hunched back down again. The pain was strangely welcoming as it took her mind off her situation for the brief moment it lasted. Unfortunately a chilly numbness followed the pain and the little girl fumbled around with her mitten-clad hand to make sure that her leg was still attached. The cold and the darkness in the hole were stifling and she hugged herself in an attempt to keep the little warmth left in her body from escaping into the darkness. The hatch swung down and just before it closed she heard the man say, "Good luck. Say hello to your mother, and to God. Don't stop praying."

Everything turned black. The girl tried to catch her breath, but her sobbing made it difficult. What upset her most was that the envelope would never be delivered. She squeezed her eyes shut, because the thought of sunlight always calmed her. Maybe someone would come to get her. Surely the person at the window would save her. Please, please, please. She didn't want to stay here anymore. She clasped her hands together and whispered:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

And
if
I die before I wake,

I pray the Lord
my
soul to take.

Chapter 1

BOOK: My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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