Mary Morgan’s ‘Breaking the Ice’.
This short story, of approx 8,500 words, starts with a scene direct from a Norse Saga. Something is out there and whether it be the Truth, or something altogether deadlier, will soon be revealed to those huddled in their turf-covered huts by the seashore.
The date of the tale is not revealed, but by internal evidence it is indeed sometime in the days of the Norse peoples and their Gods. The settlement by the sea has fallen on hard difficult times, and some therein want to return to harsher, crueler ways of appeasing the Gods’ anger. There is a young woman living there, rescued from the sea by these people after being shipwrecked. She views the crisis in the village steadfastly; having been rendered emotionless by her years of bondage to people who care nothing for her as a person. This woman feels the strains of the surrounding society as they try to cope with disaster. They rely on the sea for nurture, and the fish this year are shy. People are running short of food, and indeed actually starving. In this atmosphere of looming menace the reader enters the mind of this semi-slave, long used to the people and their ways.
As the story is so short I do not intend to detail any more of its plot. I shall, however, discuss the method of writing. The woman whom we know only by the name the people gave her, ‘Bren’ meaning ‘other’, has repressed her emotions and hope of rescue over the years till what remains is a husk of herself. She observes the pains the seashore people undergo; the worries they talk about among themselves; the simple answers they find to attempt to relieve themselves of terror: but does not enter into the intellectual life or emotions of those with whom she lives. She is a by-stander; observing, not communicating.
Then Xena and Gabrielle appear, wrapped in furs; and this brings out all the hidden anger of the years in the woman called ‘Bren’. She sees Xena as a person who could give her freedom; the freedom she has been hoping for during many years captivity. For Gabrielle she feels only contempt, because she is someone who would think of others before herself—and so lose her freedom. Bren finds this revolting—the need for revenge sweeps through her mind in a giant wave, and she becomes somewhat unhinged in her thinking.
During the days that follow we discover why the two warrior women have travelled to the obscure settlement; what it is that the fear of the people has engendered in the vicinity; how they may appease this source of evil, if they so wish; and how Xena and Gabrielle interact with and finally direct their eventual decisions.
This is all told wholly from the perspective of a genuinely unhinged mind, struggling with years of suppressed emotion—where hope has turned to hate; warmth to cold; the need for companionship to that of an unfeeling spectator; and the need for love and freedom to cold revenge.
There are two climactic moments; one when Bren has a face-to-face meeting with Gabrielle which is genuinely tense, scary, and frightening. The other when the final climax comes to pass. There are changes in the people as a group; in the way their minds work; in their outlook on life; and there is a change in Bren herself. It cannot be said this story ends on a high note; but it does end on a perfect note. What transpires is completely in keeping with the mental outlook of the people involved, and feels exactly right. Bren undergoes a partial modification in her attitude, and comes to realise what is actually of true importance to her there in the barren seashore community. And Xena and Gabrielle leave at the story’s close.
This is a very intense, cerebral story; mostly taking place in the mind of a young woman for whom all hope vanished long ago, and who now lives daily in a cold repressed state of abnegation of all her better feelings. Like the terrain and locality in which it is set, the story is cold and hard: but it is cold and hard like a gemstone, and repays a close reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it.