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  • Published: 3 December 2019
  • ISBN: 9781405934619
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $22.99

The Glass Woman



Stykkishólmur, Iceland, November

The day the earth shifts, a body emerges from the belly of the ice- crusted sea. Bone-white fingers waving, as if alive.

The men and women of Stykkishólmur stumble into the cold air, cursing as the tremors shower tufts of turf onto their heads. But the sight of the arm, beckoning them towards the frozen water, freezes them in their tracks, half- finished words left unspoken, mouths agape.

The men surge forward, scrambling over the wrinkled hillocks of solid seawater. It is hard work. He struggles among them, cradling the throbbing wound in his side. His tattered breaths rip from him with every jolt of his sealskin boots on the ice.

Behind him, safe on snow and frozen soil, people are watching. He can feel them weighing his every step — hoping for the ice to give way.

He remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in. The sea had swallowed it immediately, the flash of white vanishing into the darkness. But the knowledge of the body stayed, like the blood-spattered scenes at the end of the Sagas: those age-old, heat-filled stories, which are told to children from birth and fill every Icelander with an understanding of violence.

Six days ago, he had muttered a prayer over the black water, and then they had laboured back to the croft. The ice had crusted over the hole by moon-down, and by the time the pale half-light of the winter sun seeped into the sky, the snow concealed it. Weather masks a multitude of sins.

But the land in Iceland is never still. The grumbling tremors or the sucking of the waters must have dislodged the stones, and now the body has bobbed upwards and broken through the cracks in the ice. And here it is. Waving.

He slips and falls heavily, grunting as the smack of the ice throbs through his side. But he must carry on. He heaves himself upright, gasping at the pain. The ice creaks under his boots. Beneath him, the black water gulps, endless and hungry. He eases himself forward.

Gently. Gently.

The earth shudders again — no more than the shaking of a wet dog, but it throws him to his knees. The world reduces to grating, shifting sheets of ice. He lies face down, gasping — waiting for the crack that will echo like a shattering bone. It will be the last noise he hears before the sea swallows him.

The ice stills. The world stops shivering. Silence settles.

He pulls himself to his knees and the two men alongside him do the same.

They exchange a look, eyebrows raised, and he nods. The ice groans. Underneath, the dark current seeps, like a secret.

‘Hurry!’ one of the people on shore calls. ‘Another quake will take you!’

He sighs and scrubs his hands through his hair.

‘It would be best left,’ says one of the men, who is tall and black- eyed, as if he is formed from the same shifting, volcanic rock as the land.

The third man, light- skinned and red- haired, like a Celt, nods. ‘Until the spring. More light, the ice will thaw.’

He scratches his beard, then shakes his head. ‘We must get it out now . . . I must get it out.’

The taller of the men scowls, his dark eyes blackening further. ‘Go back,’ he says. ‘Don’t risk yourselves.’

But now the other men shake their heads too.

‘We stay,’ says the taller man, quietly.

The crowd on the shore still watches: ten people, but their excitement and whispering make them seem more. They are muttering in huddles, mouths hidden behind mittened hands. Their words make grey clouds of sound in the cold air ­— poison circling like a miasma.

They are near the water now; the ice crackles under their boots. He holds up a hand. They stop.

He lies down on his stomach and eases forward. Less than a hand-span beneath him, he can see the gulping black sea. In front of him, the white-shrouded shape bobs in the water. The frozen fingers beckon him invitingly.

The ice grinds its teeth.

He jabs with the scythe and, with a rush of exultation, feels it catch on the cloth. He heaves. The body floats closer, pale hand flapping towards his face. He flinches. Then the material rips and the scythe tears free. The body bobs away.

‘Leave it,’ growls the dark-haired man.

He stretches out with the scythe again. His cold muscles shriek in protest, and his arm judders with the effort. He jabs hard, and the metal point stabs through the sheet. He winces, as though the cold metal has punctured his own flesh, then closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and stabs again. The blade sinks into the meat.

The other two men hold him as he starts to heave the body from the water. Slowly, a dark shape emerges and flops out onto the ice.

‘I’m sorry,’ he rasps.

They carry the heavy parcel over the sea ice, back to land.

He tries not to look down at where that dead hand trails across the slush and ice, like the fingers of a child, balling snow ready to hurl. Smoke from the fires in the nearby crofts sends a black scrawl into the icy air — dark runic scribbles against the villagers’ excited white breath.

As the men near the shore, the people surge forward, fluttering like eager carrion birds, jostling to be the first to gorge on this unexpected feast.

The Glass Woman Caroline Lea

Rich in character and description, The Glass Woman is an atmospheric debut about superstitions and everything they conceal

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