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81 3 THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING SEAWOMEN AND THE RISE OF HAGS, TROLLS, AND WHORES The water lay deceptively calm as I leaned against the railing on the upper deck of the Breidafjördur ferry, watching the various islands in the distance, imagining the women who rowed and sailed here, seeing the ominous swirl of a barely submerged skerry. It was late May, and I was on my way to visit Hrönn, who fishes for lumpfish with her brother from their home on the island of Flatey. She and I had recently met while she was visiting Reykjavík, and she had invited me to visit her home. I very much wanted to see this island I had now read so much about. My thoughts wandered, and I cringed, not for the first time, as I remembered an experience at a recent academic conference. I had by then given a couple of tentative presentations arising from my research on the seawomen, but this was to a group of very informed Icelandic academics. To say I was nervous is an understatement. Then, confirming my worst fears, at the end of my presentation, one of the Icelandic participants flatly refused to believe the evidence of the seawomen’s presence, despite the heavily sourced presentation I had just given. After some consideration, the man finally conceded that perhaps there were some women, but only on some small boats in Breidafjördur where the waters were “protected.” I stood in stunned silence a moment. This was the stuff of bad dreams, not reality. 82 CHAPTER THREE As I reflected on this memory while watching the approaching rocks of Flatey in the near distance, I was suddenly interrupted by the ferry’s skipper, who joined me as we neared the island. He gave me a brilliant smile and made a comment about the mild weather. I asked him if he knew Hrönn. “Ah yes, I know Hrönn of Flatey,” he said. “She’s my cousin.” Hrönn later told me that the skipper had grown up on Flatey, that his family now lived in Stykkishólmur along the south side of Breidafjördur, and that they, like her family, had lived on Flatey for generations. Although Hrönn had grown up fishing with her family on Flatey, she moved to Reykjavík after she married a film director she met one summer on the island. Years later, divorced, she was working at a furniture factory when her brother asked if she would like to come back and join him, doing as Vallý’s family did, fishing lumpfish for their now-valuable roe. “I was very lucky,” she told me. “This was before the crash. Afterwards , so many of the people at the factory were let go. I have done well fishing. And I love it.” I wandered around Flatey when I arrived, careful to stay on paths and away from the nests that the Arctic terns kept dive-bombing me to defend. Of all the islands, once bustling hubs and home to so many seafaring women, Flatey was now the only one with year-round residents . Local families who once lived on the various islands still own land and birding rights on them. They tend sheep and collect birds’ eggs and down from the eider ducks, but they all now live on the mainland, except for the two permanent families on Flatey. The old church on Flatey remains, joined now by a number of summer homes and even a hotel, open during the summer tourist season. Hrönn’s mother, taking advantage of any income potential, also runs a small guesthouse from their home. Unlike the hotel, her guesthouse stays open all year. “We don’t do traditional farming,” Hrönn told me as we sat in their sunny kitchen. Instead, as with the generations before them, the family collects eiderdown, its largest market being Japan. “The prices go up and down,” she added. “Right now they’re down, so it’s not so good.” Eider ducks are remarkable in that they have not only their top feathers but also very soft down under feathers—the eiderdown. These birds build nests in the long grass for their young, lining them with this softest of cushioning. Eiderdown collectors, utilizing a technique handed The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Seawomen 83 down for centuries, take two bags with them: one filled with grass they have crushed and softened to resemble the eiderdown...


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