I have donned and doffed many hats, some with childish glee, pleasure and ecstasy; others with a nagging pain, disquiet, and agony, but never one with guilt. 

And yet I have vowed never to open my lips. My heart tears as their lips smirk whilst calling me name after name! 

But then Natan had said “Agnes, what’s in a name?”                                                      I swallow bitter bile: I might as well have been a lamb to slaughter!’

Natan’s words had made sense then; but, each time another name? And each name hurled at me, hounded my soul like a pack of wolves!

Castoff…Drudge…Vixen…Temptress…

Upstart…Traitor…Murderess…Condemned

My tongue becomes leaden, ah that stabbing pain and blinding fury.

***********************

“Pleasure first, then pain, O  reader, take my tale stoically, as I have begun to.”

Let’s begin: Natan Ketilsson’s voice, hoarse with longing, rings in my ears, his laughter echoes, as he calls me ‘Minx’.

At Geitaskard, his eyes never stopped following me, then, I was a mere servant girl. 

But Natan had a way with words, sheer flattery, “Be the mistress of my isolated sea farm, Illugastadir.”

An inhabitant of the hostile, bleak Nordic region, I recall a younger woman full of life, bedazzled with love, delighted with Natan, when his eyes followed me. 

 “ Witch” he muttered, swaying towards me in Illugastadir; his fingers dug into my flesh, searing it passionately, leaving my body scarred. How I long to see his eyes light up with that longing. Then, he was mine. 

Was I in awe of Natan Ketilsson? No, I think not. He struck that chord that no man had.

People called him a sorcerer, magician, portion-maker. I kept wondering who he actually was? 

His thin tapering fingers, well kept hands didn’t seem like any other man’s. He said he could read people, yet to him I remained a woman of many secrets.

Strangely in Illugastadir, after a while, I realised my dreams were vain. I became a slave, not mistress, and he, a temperamental Master! 

With each passing day, I resigned to his suspicion, and bouts of intolerance, accepting my fate. Was it the seventeen- -year-old Sigga, or was it her fling with Fridrik? I’ll never understand.

**********************

After Natan, that warmth disappeared, and winter crept into my heart, filling it with the void that lingers in these parts. 

That’s what Björn Blondal said, “Agnes! Women like you are doomed! And the Nordic landscape has little ability to nurture the likes of you.” That our District Commissioner, a man drunk on power, held orphans in contempt was nothing new for me. All men do. Women are means to an end, a possession, like the livestock to be bred, milched, finally butchered! 

 Toti, my religious counsellor, was sent by him with strict instructions: “ Repair her sinful soul, herd it back to Christianity! Not a jot of guilt or repentance in those dark eyes! 

 Plague on her bastardy!” 

Totí ascertained facts: “Agnes, the illegitimate daughter of Magnús.”  

Unconsciously, I reply, “Jonsdóttir, Petursdóttir may be” an embarrassed Totí turns scarlet. 

And I wonder at the necessity to affix one man’s name. My mother had sired several children, each birthed with a hope of respectability. And what came of us? 

We remained disowned bastards! This fact stings, ah I thought I had become immune.

 My heart had hardened when my mother abandoned me after Joas’s birth at Brettukor. She hoped the father of her son would marry her. Little did she know that women of our station wander restlessly like the Southerly winds. The parish sheltered me, a waif, until Inga’s eyes fell on me. She sniffed my precocity.

At Körnsa, that winter in 1818, I felt I had a home. Inga, my foster mother, taught me all the things girls must know, washing, milking, haymaking, wielding a scythe; reading and writing. And experiencing birthing.

How that crippled me. Ugh! The blizzard hit us savagely when Mamma broke her water and went into gruelling labour. I howled like the winds outside as if possessed when I saw her writhing in pain. Pabbi Björn gave clipped orders as she thrust out the baby. 

  That long harsh winter, I stepped into womanhood, seeing Inga’s body turn cold, and the bloodied garments, stiff purple. The stench still haunts me. I remember draughts of bitter wind thrashing the fish skinned panes, that was Inga’s last night in 1818! 

Björn’s relatives came a day later, the savage blizzard had come to an aching halt, killing most of the livestock at Körnsa. We scrubbed the storeroom clean and placed the wrapped cleaned bodies of Mamma and baby on briny fish bones. My palms had absorbed the reek of blood. 

As spring of 1819 set in, Pabbi’s family washed their hands off me, again the parish sheltered me.

 *******************

Now, I’m back in Körnsa, after thirty three years. My destiny must go as planned by men like Blöndal. A terror-stricken family is fated to lodge a convict. 

I intuit their fear. They despise my presence, my foul-smelling, vermin infested body. No corner in this house, except the warm badstofa, comforts me. My days are an ordeal, and nights full of portentous dreams.

  One more winter to go, I whisper to my soul. 

As my last days draw near, I think how frail the thread of trust is. Totí beseeches, “Agnes, please…tell me your story.” Isn’t each of our stories shrouded in mystery? 

 Show a little compassion when you piece my story together, O Reader. Do me justice!

 Should I be condemned for rescuing a hacked man? Should I be punished for snapping that last tether of life in an act of mercy, when that was my man’s last wish. Natan Ketilsson begged me. 

 I await the brutal beheading, knowing my head will be exhibited, for weeks.

My spirit trembles when I ask: What will you name me, O reader: orphan, sinner, cut-throat, man-slayer or lover?

Or will you remember me as Agnes Magnusdóttir?

Mumtaz N Khorakiwala

17-02-2024

 

        *********

A Note on the story

The tale is an adaptation of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. My plot aligns with the story but differs in retelling by bringing the voice of Agnes loud and clear in an  interactive dialogue.

Glossary 

1.Geitaskard/Illugastadir/Körnsa: farms in Iceland

2. Magnusdóttir/Jonsdóttir/Petursdóttir: Patronymic names- daughter of Magnús/Jon/Peturs

3. Pabbi: father

4.badstofa: enclosed bedroom in Iceland 

 

 

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