Having answered a Berlin newspaper advertisement for “strong women who can cook and do farm work,” Sophie Charlotte finds herself married with two sons on an Icelandic sheep farm, trying to sever cords of memory that lead back to the powerful love she knew in Germany and all that she lost there. When World War II began, Charlotte was attached to a supremely talented but politically furious painter in Berlin. But she would lose him twice: first to the resistance and then to the camps. More wounding for Charlotte, however, is the unforgiving trace of their daughter, Lena, who at 5 years old tragically disappeared into the chaos of the War.
This is an extraordinarily beautiful saga that links sure-footed portraits of wartime Berlin and the severity of life in the Icelandic countryside. Moving and genuinely affirming, Seal Woman is a many-colored portrayal of a stong woman’s life broken in two stark and unforgiving worlds separated by the North Atlantic.
$18.00 | Trade Paper | 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 | 288 pages
Feb 4, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60953-105-8 | Carton Quantity: 20
Charlotte stood on the black sand. The surf swirled around the toes of her boots. Columns of hardened lava rose from the water like wading trolls. Fulmars quarreled in the cliffs above. Her desire to speak the forbidden names was overwhelming. She raised her head and directed her voice to the leaden line where ocean and sky met.
She shouted again. When her throat grew sore, she pulled the hood of her jacket over her head and turned away from the ocean. Beyond the sea grass on the dunes, a dirt road passed alongside cliffs stained white by generations of birds. A black Ford pick-up approached. Ragnar was already back from the village to fetch her. Why did he always rush her?
She’d asked him to see if her oil paints had arrived from Berlin. Her mother wrote that the lids had been screwed on tight. Twelve years and the paints were still good. He walked toward her now, swinging his plowman hands. He didn’t like her near the ocean. He’d made her promise two years ago never to go into the water again.
That seaweed in your hair. So horrible.
Why not, she’d asked, wanting more than the obvious answer. He’d described the horrors of drowning. You feel like you’re suffocating. When he was a boy, a friend from the neighboring farm had thought he could swim in the North Atlantic. He hadn’t returned.
Ragnar had breathed that story into her neck the first time they’d made love after she went into the sea. It wasn’t until early morning that he gave her the right answer.
Because I love you.
After ten years of marriage, he’d finally said it.
Now his disapproval made her throat tighten. Easing her voice around that feeling, she addressed him in his native language—farm talk.
“Did they have the grain?”
He started to speak, but hesitated, and she grew impatient, hating herself for it. The other farmers didn’t wait for him to finish, just gabbled on about wool and prices. But she was his wife. She had to listen.
“Two bags,” he said at last.
She took his hand. He pulled away, but then gave in to her. People didn’t hold hands, not after they were married, he’d said. People would think they—they what? Inside the truck, the silence thickened between them. The rumble of the motor came as a relief. He ran his hands over his thighs before grasping the steering wheel. His overalls were threadbare from the frequent gesture.
He shook his head. She felt sharp disappointment. All these years on the island, she’d used colored pencils or watercolors. Suddenly she’d wanted the paints from her old life. She leaned her head against the dusty leather and sighed. Eventually the paints would emerge from the hold of the ship in Reykjavík, and the bus would bring them to the village, but would she still need them then? A headache crouched at her temples. Dust swirled up through the floor of the car. Bulging sheep eyes watched from both sides of the road. The woolly-barreled bodies bore tiny heads with delicate nostrils and a thin mouth curved into a tentative smile. Charlotte often gagged on farm life. Humans weren’t meant to live among moss and heather, climb rocks, and freeze in summer snowstorms. That was for sheep. And men like Ragnar.
Halfway up the hillside, Max would have worn her out with talking. Odd how Ragnar’s stolid silence still made her think of Max’s restlessness.
In the rear view mirror, the gray sky blurred into the black sea as the tires gripped the rutted road for the last part of the ascent. Suddenly she remembered why he’d gone to the village today.
“Did you get the new blade?” she asked.
“No deliveries this week,” he said, his voice furred with disappointment.
Of course not. The blade was in the hold of the same ship that contained the paints from her mother.
“We’re at the end of the world,” she whispered to the sheep.
His shoulder shifted defensively. “But it’s better than Germany—right?”
He was right. The hillside was better, better than the Germany she’d left that summer—no work, nothing to eat, the best people dead or gone. But she didn’t like hearing it from him. Sometimes they didn’t talk for days. He lived at the center of a world warmed by cows and sheep while she clung to its periphery. She fed the chickens in a daydream of her favorite German painter, David Casper Friedrich. How did he gnarl his trees? How did Rembrandt pock his noses?
Farm chores kept her focused on eggs and milk. Penciled reminders on the calendar dictated their lives—May, manure grinders at the cooperative store. June, grain shipment. July, barbed wire.
But memories often eclipsed the calendar. Last winter, treading the snow rut between house and shed to milk the cows, she’d seen her old life. Max stood beside her in the cold classroom at the academy, pointing at the model, then at her painting.
Her breasts aren’t pink. They’re really green and yellow. Thighs are purple.
Thanks to Max, today she still measured everything, even the distance from then to now. But she didn’t want to be like Lot’s wife, looking back over her shoulder. She hated how memory ate the edges off her real life, how images of then were brighter than scooping out the gutters in the cowshed. She’d be listening to Henrik, her island child, when Lena’s voice from years ago would break in. Mamma. It was Henrik pulling her ear. But she heard only Lena talking to her bear under the kitchen table. Sometimes she’d stop work and fight it. She’d chant the days of the week in Icelandic—sunnudagur, mánudagur—until the memories broke into little pieces.
She and Max had been so sensual together. Her fingertips, the sides of her feet, the backs of her knees—every part of her—had desired him. They’d lingered over one another, languidly naming things—colors, painters, landscapes, sunsets. She had relished the slow build-up of desire, the sudden explosion of pleasure.
Ragnar never wasted time. In the village, he bought his grain quickly. In bed, he was efficient. Slower, she’d pleaded with him those first nights in bed, placing her hand on his, guiding his stroking of her. His face in the midsummer light had been contorted with embarrassment. Later, he’d spoken.
He rarely mentioned his first wife, a woman who had grown up on the hillside. His mother had given her consumptive daughter-in-law lichen milk three times a day to clear her lungs, and still she’d died. He’d made a bad choice.
During the day, Ragnar helped Charlotte with such words as dog—hundur. Sheep—kind. Phrases like pass the fat—réttu mér flotið. He never labeled what you couldn’t see and knew little of what she saw. He especially disliked the Berlin ghost who crept under her blanket while he slept.
Sometimes when the cold air from the outside wall touched every vertebra in her back, he appeared and warmed her. But after he was gone, questions arose. How many flour bag aprons, strung together through the years like paper dolls holding hands, would she wear out in this place?
Her union with Ragnar had grown from need, not love. Too many women had left the hillside, he’d explained—gone to work as maids in Reykjavík. For money. For running water. Germany had women. He’d advertised. And she’d been a woman without a man. Funny. She’d always thought of herself as an artist, one who could live without a man.
As the truck ascended the hillside, she stared straight ahead, determined to match his silence.