It began with a whale.
Until then, I would have said I dream relatively normally, whatever that means. Some nights I fly, on others I find myself naked in front of peers, or run through cities that fold and flex and become my old school. But this one was different. This was vivid enough, strange enough, that when I surfaced with it still upon me, I wrote it down almost immediately. Or at least, a list of scrambled words, looping over each other, that I had to squint at to decipher the following day:
There was a woman, and there was a whale. The woman was not me, but she mattered to me — a sister that I do not have, a reimagining of my mother? She was climbing down a cliff face, and there were birds swirling around her. They were herring gulls, swollen nightmarishly large, their yellow beaks long as knives.
It was not easy for the woman to climb. Her skirts were long and kept catching about her legs. The rock was slippery, and her hands were freezing. The wind-thrown sea spray was rendering everything slick and cold, but she carried on. She had to.
She was climbing because below her, there was a whale. Huge, heaving, dying. When she reached it, she used the scars on its body like footholds and hauled herself up to its eye. There she lay with it, until it died.
It was an odd enough dream, but what made me more curious was my place in it. I was not the woman, nor hovering beside her, like a camera zooming in and out. I had the strong impression that I was elsewhere in the same world. Watching through her eyes, almost, through this strong, familial connection we had. And the smoke, when it came, was not from her part of the scene, but mine.
I woke thinking of witches. Or rather, women called witches and murdered for it. Whisper networks were in the news, the phrase "witch hunt" was newly misappropriated. There was the feeling of movement, of a tide, but I wasn’t sure which direction it was flowing, whether it would help women, or hinder them.
It was June, and the time of the midnight sun.
Mainly, I was thinking of how we got here. I wanted to use my voice in the only medium I know well. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know where to start.
That morning in early 2017, I knew I’d found a character, someone I wanted to spend time with and get to know. But the woman and the whale would have to wait. There were other stories to write, to edit, and my notes went into a drawer until six months later, when I read an article about Louise Bourgeois’s final installation.
Louise Bourgeois died in 2010. I first encountered her art a few years after her death, at the Tate Modern: massive, fleshy spiders constructed of thread and pillows, prints of pregnant women imbued with comedy, domestic objects stretched on racks like torture victims. Her work captured the strength and fragility of the feminine, the sort of femininity I wanted to embody, and more importantly, wanted my work to celebrate. My husband, a painter, bought me books on her art, and I covered my desk with postcards and photos, trying to immerse myself in the mood of her work. And then, scrolling through the BBC website, I found a link to her final major installation: The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved
. I clicked through.
A metal chair, perpetually aflame and surrounded by tarnished mirrors, encased in a sort of cage of tinted glass. Through the darkened windows, I could see snow.
I read on, learning that the installation was on a remote Norwegian island named Vardø, situated in the Arctic Circle, farther east than Istanbul. Bourgeois’s contribution was part of the Steilneset Memorial designed by Peter Zumthor. It was constructed in memory of the 91 men and women who died in the region’s largest witch trials in the 1600s.
I had never heard of the island, nor the witch trials. Preferring to access history through novels, rather than reference books, I searched for one about this period. My googling only turned up nonfiction, mostly by an academic called Dr. Liv Helene Willumsen. Something in me flared — there was a gap here, a silence. Something to write into.
Next I turned to that most valuable of resources, Wikipedia, and found a minute slice of information, naming the dates of the trials. The entry also mentioned that some of the women were accused of conjuring a storm three years prior. I went back to my list, and added:
By late 2017, the story had begun to form without my even willing it. It was time to tentatively start researching my first novel for adults — so tentatively that I didn’t tell a soul. But I wrote to Dr. Willumsen at the University of Tromsø, and asked where I could buy an English language edition of her books. I explained I was considering writing a novel about the events of 1617-1624, and was particularly interested in her translations of the testimonies of the women killed at Vardø.
She replied within two days, asking for an address. She would send me copies. I asked for payment details, and she insisted there was no need. I said that I would buy her a drink if I made it to Tromsø. What I really meant by this was, if this idea came to anything.
The books arrived in a heavy package a week or two later. They were extraordinary in their detail, their tenderness, their scope and understanding of the time and place. One contained photographs of the Steilneset Memorial, another essays about attitudes to women, and a third explored Norway’s connection to Scotland and its witchcraft-obsessed King James VI. But the most engaging, poignant book she sent me was small and square, printed on black card, hand-stitched. Within were the words of the murdered women. The testimonies they gave, in their own words, admitting to storm-conjuring, to murder of men and animals, to dancing with the devil. Fantastical, desperate, articulate stories that damned them to the stake.
I wanted to understand what made them confess to crimes they had no part in. I wanted to know what made this small community turn against each other in the aftermath of the 1617 storm, and led them to denounce their neighbors. Now the woman with the whale had a name: Maren. Other characters had emerged too, including a woman from Bergen, who found herself in the alien setting of Vardø. Her name was Ursa, after the stars, and together with Maren, named for the sea, they began to orbit around each other, two points in a world that grew up about them.
By early 2018, I couldn’t ignore the pull of Maren and Ursa’s story any longer. Those sluggish days after the preceding festive season were typically not the most fruitful for me, but finally, I had some time. It felt like now or never.
There followed the most intense few weeks of my creative life. I would write every day, for hours on end. After the first week, when I had a few chapters to show my agent, we began an intense tag team, where I would pass pages over daily and she would edit overnight. I’d wake to her notes and work on them until they were done, and write anew until the evening. Looking back, it feels like a fever.
The first draft of this book was written in a little over six weeks, punctuated by international travel and further deadlines, a new book contract, and a severe lapse in my mental health. I will never work like that again, but I know this story would not have had half the heat, half the intensity, half the feeling without this process. This crucible of pressure was the making of it.
Fantastical, desperate, articulate stories that damned them to the stake.
In the summer of 2018, I finally booked to go to Vardø. It was June, and the time of the midnight sun. I felt I was emerging from my own winter darkness, my mental health finally on the turn to happiness, and so I decided to travel alone. This was the first time I was traveling abroad unaided, without a festival to attend or a conference to speak at. I was going for myself, by myself.
The connecting flight runs through Tromsø, so the first thing I did was contact Dr. Willumsen. I’m coming to your city! Can we meet?
We’d been in touch throughout my research, the frenzied writing experience and everything that came after. And now, finally, I would get to speak with her, the woman who had made my telling the story respectfully and authentically possible.
The moment we met, on a crisp, sunny day in a vintage clothing-cum-coffee shop in Tromsø, I felt an unutterable sense of warmth for her, and so we hugged. We sat down in a corner surrounded by battered leather suitcases and talked. Two hours passed, and we were losing the day, so she offered to accompany me to the Tromsø museum.
There, she showed me the seal of Hans Køning, the Scot-turned-Norwegian lord who led the hunts. She showed me a Sami drum, and we talked about the lives of the Indigenous people who were, and are, persecuted for their way of life in the region. We bought each other rune necklaces, hers the Sami for "teacher," mine for "friendship." After, we walked in the late evening light around Tromsø’s botanical gardens. Among arctic flora, we discussed my impending flight to Vardø, to the memorial. You feel it,
she said, not through the head, but through the heart
I arrived in Vardø in the late afternoon. An hour’s drive through flat landscape from the nearest airport and connected to the mainland by a sea tunnel, the small town felt eerie in the dusk light that would last until morning. I saw no one as I walked from the sole hotel to the memorial. I passed through Zumthor’s extraordinary structure, past Liv’s beautiful, tragic translations of the testimonies, and into Bourgeois’s glass cage. A fine mist had come in off the sea and shrouded the mirrors. But still there was my face reflected many times, illuminated by and witness to the flames, the hissing of the fire, the incredible heat of the metal chair. It went, as Liv had told me it would, straight through my heart.
Standing there should have felt as close to touching distance as I’d come to the women of Vardø, but it wasn’t. Of course the gravity of what happened to them hit me, punched through me, and I cried. But the way they died was not why I wrote The Mercies
. I wrote it, as I say in my historical note, to examine how they lived, to explore their lives, loves, and friendships in this remote place. These truths I’d drawn from the myriad people who supported me as I wrote the story. To the women who raise(d) me. The Mercies
, then, is a celebration of what survives, what endures. The light and the hope that can be found even in the darkest of places.
Leaving Vardø, I knew I’d return. I watched it recede in the rear view, noticing too late the bleached bones on the southern side of the island. A whale skeleton, beached under the midnight sun.
÷ ÷ ÷
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
is a British poet and playwright, as well as an acclaimed children's author. Her debut book for children, The Girl of Ink and Stars
, sold over 120,000 copies in the UK alone, winning the Waterstones Children's Book Prize and the British Children's Book of the Year. Her second book, The Island at the End of Everything
, was shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book Award, and received starred reviews from Kirkus
, and VOYA
. She holds degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and lives by the river in Oxford. The Mercies
is her debut novel for adults.