Chapter IV- The Crossing to Greenland
Erik gave the order and the men pulled as one on their oars. The Wave Swine glided across the glassy waters of the Broad Fjord with a fleet of knarrs trailing behind. Many of those who were not rowing were waving goodbye to their friends and neighbors who lined the docks and shores of Budardal. Some stood silently looking back at the life they were leaving behind. Others were looking ahead, in their mind’s eye envisioning the life that awaited them in Greenland. But Leif had eyes only for his father, standing at the center of the open ship, surrounded by his men who were rowing. He was in high spirits and it was contagious. This was a glorious day, Leif thought, warm and clear and so full of promise, and his father, Erik the Red was their leader.
Broad Fjord fit its name. Unlike so many fjords with their narrow waterways bounded by sheer cliffs, the land quickly fell away to the right and left with plenty of room to raise their sail and let the gentle breeze do the work. Erik was shouting commands and many of the rowers shipped their oars while those remaining fought with their oars to keep the knarr steady as the mast was hauled up and secured. As soon as there was a favorable wind, Erik gave the word and the scarlet and black checkered sail of the Wave Swine was hoisted. It shuddered and flapped and then snapped taut. Leif rushed to the back of the knarr with Thorvald to watch as the fleet behind them followed suit, shipping oars, raising masts, hoisting sails of all manner of colors and designs, like meadow flowers swaying in the breeze.
The sun was rising in the sky when Leif saw before them the first signs of the open sea. Like his father, Leif loved the sea: the bracing wind off the water, the slap of the waves against the prow and the salty mist thrown up into the air. The ship picked up speed and soon the circling and calling gulls peeled off and made their way back toward land.
Leif sat down near Helgi Asgrimsson whose strong hand was at the tiller, “How long before we come to Greenland?”
“We have a good wind and calm seas. Two days before we see its white shores if the gods be not contrary.”
“Why should they be contrary?”
“They’re gods, aren’t they? Feasting one moment, warring the next. I guess its where we get our nature,” laughed the helmsman.
Leif laughed too. Being drawn to Tyrker’s god, Leif no longer put much stock in the Norse gods, but he still loved the tales of their deeds and antics.
Women were passing out the afternoon meal to the men. His mother came and passed Leif and Helgi rye flatbraud and skreid, a piece of of dried white fish. As they began to eat, Freydis scurried over with a skin of ale and a wooden cup. She stumbled a bit as she poured the brown liquid. Smiling, she handed the cup to Herjolf who downed it in huge gulps. He handed it back to the girl who filled it half way and then gave it to Leif. The ale was cold and bitter and quenched his thirst. With a full belly and the rocking of the boat, Leif curled up with the cargo stowed in the compartment under the feet of Helgi and fell asleep.
He woke to the sounds of shouts and men moving about urgently. Some were adjusting the rigging while others were making a tent over the center of the knarr with a spare sail. The boat was moving up and down with large swells which made Leif unsteady as he moved to the prow and looked ahead.
There, on the distant horizon black clouds blocked out the sun as it was making its descent. Occasional flashes of light lit up the boiling skies and the heaving seas. Several moments later the crack of thunder could be heard.
Erik gave the order to reef the sail, As it came down, much of the strain was taken off the mast. Several men took up the surplus of the lowered sail into a roll and lashed it with its attached sveptingar.
By nightfall, the squall had become a gale. Any thought of sailing by the wind had to been long since abandoned. The stern was turned to the waves and the Wave Swine ran before the wind.
Lightning was now forking down from the black sky all around them, and huge waves tossed their knarr like a piece of drift wood. “Thor must be having quite the battle!” Helgi yelled, but Leif could barely hear him over the storm.
A thunderbolt lanced down behind them, and smote the mast of the knarr three ships away. Yells came up as the mast splintered and toppled over and the next wave capsized the ship. Over a hundred Icelanders spilled into the icy seas. They all went down to Aegir’s hall.
The men on the Wave Swine made signs of the hammer, or touched amulets about their necks, while they prayed to Thor and Njord to spare their lives.
What was once a proud fleet, was now a scattering of battered and tattered knarrs fighting to stay afloat. Some lost the fight.
Every swell threatened to swamp them. Many were using buckets or bowls or anything that could hold water to bail the sea water and rain that was collecting at their feet. Leif and his brother Thorsteinn, each with his own bailing bucket, worked furiously side by side. They did so as long as their arms were able. Leif had no sense of time in the storm. At first he counted every bucket of water he threw over the side. When this slowed because of his fatigued arms, he counted his breaths. Was it still night, or was it the next day? Leif did not know. The storm was not relenting and the darkness about them could not be any darker. He was so wet and cold that he was becoming numb and so very exhausted, but he pressed on because he knew that his life and the life of everyone aboard depended on everyone doing their part.
When he could do no more, he dragged himself to the tented area to find a bit of shelter to rest and regain some strength. In the tent all was chaos. Leif heard violent retching. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the shadow of his father bending over someone lying on the ship’s planking. It was actually two people lying side by side, writhing in sickness. As he drew closer, Leif realized that it was his mother and sister who had been retching from the turbulent seas, and it seemed that it had been going on for some time now. Women were also there, doing their best to ease Thjodhild's and Freydis’ discomfort but to little effect.
The second day gave way to the third and the storm was not relenting. Leif noticed that fewer ships were behind them. He guessed that some had been scattered by the winds and others had been swallowed up by the towering waves. His mother and sister were not getting any better. In fact, they were getting weaker. Freydis suffered the worst. After two days of constantly vomiting, Leif’s five year-old sister was wasting away. Blankets and cloaks were thrown over them in a futile attempt to keep them warm and dry. One woman cradled Thjodhild’s head in her lap, another held Freydis in her arms. An old woman who knew something of the healing arts had given them the roots of the hvonn plant to chew on, but to no avail—it did not calm their stomachs but instead set off a new spasm of dry heaves. Erik in the meantime paced the deck, one moment begging the gods to spare wife and daughter, the next, shaking his fist at the angry sky cursing those same gods. Thorsteinn rocked back and forth praying fervently to Njord to calm the storm, so his sister and mother could recover. The storm raged on.
Leif desperately searched the knarr for Tyrker and eventually found him bailing water by the helmsman.
Though his throat was raw and the noise from the howling winds and the roaring waves and the groaning of the knarr as it was twisting and torquing was nearly deafening, he was able to shout out to the freeman, “Mother and sister are dying. Come and pray over them to your god!”
A wave broke over the stern and they both grabbed onto the nearest bench. Tyker shook his dark locks and shouted back, “Lead me to them!”
They ducked under the canvas and made their way to the center of a small crowd of people huddled around the now limp females.
Leif got on a knee by his mother’s head and said loudly, “I have brought Tyrker to pray to his god for you.”
Thjodhild did not respond.
The drenched and exhausted Magyar got on both knees and laid on hand on the mother’s brow and the other on the daughter’s.
“Great God of the heavens and the earth, of the mountains and the seas. Incline your ear to your humble servant. I beseech you in the name of your Son to grant favor and bring healing to these two sick ones whom you made for your pleasure.” He touched his head, heart and both shoulders and then got up and made his way out again into the wind and rain to take up his bailing once more.
Later that day the black clouds gave way to gray, the wind subsided and the waves leveled out and by nightfall the skies cleared all together and the stars twinkled against a moonless backdrop. By those stars Eyjolf, Erik’s right hand and most experienced seaman, made a course correction and pointed their prow toward the lodestar. Erik gave the order to raise the sail which filled with a favorable wind that sped them on their way.
As the welcomed and warming rays of morning light broke over the horizon and woke Leif from the first real sleep he had had in days, he heard the familiar cry of a gull. He leapt up and the first thing he saw was his his father, both hands on his hips and the widest grin on his face. “Helgi, turn to starboard! Today we reach Greenland’s shore!”
Leif stood up on a bench and looked in the direction his father was but saw nothing before them. “Father how do you know?”
“Because lad, sea birds always stay in sight of land. The seagull turned and flew to the right, so I reckon that’s the direction of land.”
Indeed he was right, and soon they and everyone else onboard could see the rocky strands and a glint of the distant glaciers of Greenland. Someone pressed up next to him and he turned to see who it was. It was his mother, pale and weak, but standing. And Freydis was next to her, sitting on a bench, hands and chin resting on the side of the boat as she looked on her new home.