The Biological Station

This is the in-between season. May in northern Finland, when the snow has not yet finished melting. The thick, white crusts on lakes and rivers bruise violet in the sunlight. Out of sight, underneath, water flows, cannibalising winter’s skin. What looks solid isn’t. There’s not so many places you can walk.

Soile had told me May was a perfect time to come and write at Kilpisjarvi, quiet and peaceful. The biological station lies some 5 km along the lakeshore from the village proper, north along the road that leads to Norway and the Arctic Sea. Soile had kindly booked me into a room at the biological station for two weeks. She would stay a couple of nights herself to do her own work and see me settled in.

On the Internet, it looked bleak and windswept. I don’t like bleak and windswept, but I trusted Soile and I liked the idea of going somewhere a long way north. I come from the south: in Greenwich Meridian terms southeast, in Australian terms southwest, in Perth terms, due west, out near the rifle range that blocked us from walking through the scrub down to the ocean.  White middle-class suburbs, lawns and rose bushes, laid out on sand-dunes in Noongah country. I don’t recall ever hearing guns being fired out there on the rifle range, although they must have fired them. Instead, the wind carried the sound of the speedway cars going around the track at Claremont Showgrounds. We never went to the speedway but I listened to it, lying in bed at night, like it was wild animals roaring in the distance. I come from the south but I come from nowhere, because where I come from isn’t where I come from. Willful amnesia is where I come from. My great grandparents and further back came from Scotland and England and probably other places north and European, but we never talked about that. We never talked about where we came from or how we came to be where we were. Who was there before, who was still there now. Aboriginal people we feared and pitied but mostly succeeded in erasing from our minds as our families had erased them from their lands, way back in the distant past,  we told ourselves. It must have been more than a hundred years ago, as if that was geological, but again we didn’t really have to tell ourselves very often because the trick was always not to think about it in the first place. Like I never thought about how my father died. Not once. (He committed suicide.) That’s how I got attuned to how not thinking works. It’s effective, in its own way, but only to a point, because things endure. Atmospheres remember. Maybe it was to get away from all of this effort of not-thinking that I felt a pull towards the north. Or maybe my body has an ancient sense that north is home. Even for the north, this place, Kilpisjarvi, is northern—far above the Arctic Circle. Already in mid-May, the sun no longer sets and won’t again for the next three months. Not that it rises very much. It travels in its own in-between zone, as if riding on a very slow and gentle rollercoaster hitched to the horizon.

Soile is a friend; a sociologist, she works at the university in Rovaniemi, administrative capital of Finnish Lapland. One Saturday she drives me up to Kilpisjarvi in her old Peugeot, taking the roads that flit along the river sewing Finland to its Western neighbor and former imperial overlord, Sweden. Back and forth we cross over wide and empty bridges, past sleeping border stations. Sweden: neater. Finland: wild, a bit disheveled.

I’ve never before been to a place where it is normal for the ground to be blanketed in snow for months on end. Where I grew up, you could drive for day after day in any direction, any season and never come across so much as a teaspoonful of snow. With a friend, when I was a kid, I climbed Toolbrunup, at just above a thousand metres tall, one of Western Australia’s highest peaks. A squally cloud enveloped the summit, spitting out a few rare snowflakes that nestled, dying, on the outstretched palms of our hands. We couldn’t believe our luck. Here, in some Swedish village we are driving past, a woman shovels away piles of old snow heaped by her front door, making the most of the weekend sunshine to do some garden chores.

We stop at a Swedish petrol station selling reindeer skins. They also sell a small book with diagrams showing the unique pattern each Sami reindeer herding family has chosen or been granted to distinguish the ear tags of their reindeer, which otherwise wander freely across the Arctic countryside.

Almost all of Finland is a flat plain, studded with freshwater lakes. But as you drive into the far north-west, the land finally begins to swell. Under the pressure of the colder latitude, the pine trees shrink and thin, leaving the leafless birches etching veins of black across white hillsides. The snow deepens. The rounded hills rise higher, until you crest a range to reach a place where the still, white surface of a large lake rests like a glass eye in a socket, watched over by dramatic mountains. This is Kilpisjarvi.

*

Across the skin of writing falls the shadow of its many failures. In this,  it is no different from any other task of making: cooking, hammering a nail. How many times has that nail bent, almost surely ruined, when I failed to strike it just how it needed to be struck?

In lieu of a more heroic writing project, I would be working at the biological station on a kind of compendium of ruins. Looking back at various unfinished and abandoned pieces of writing, I sift through their remains to salvage any scraps that might be dragged out and pieced together in a new form somewhere else. I also have a freshly abandoned work that so wants to be the beginning of something good but bobs uncomfortably on the same tide of shame that swamped the earlier manuscripts. In accepting that there is no hope in these projects being resolved in the short term, but having committed to this time of privileged solitude devoted entirely to the productivity of writing—in other words, at a null point—I am forced into the humility of accepting and nurturing whatever I can find, in between.

The biological station is owned and operated by the University of Helsinki. A flag flutters above the station displaying its emblem, which, as far as I can discern, is two lemmings hugging. In peak season, the station can comfortably accommodate 20 or 30 people, between the large main building and its surrounding cottages. In the main building, where I live, there is a cafeteria with full industrial kitchen, a library, seminar room, offices, a separate kitchen for the use of residents and a wing of laboratories packed with scientific instruments, equipment, and work tables. In the basement, because this is Finland, there is a sauna. There used to be another sauna in a log cabin down by the lake but sadly, this is closed. The spartan, spacious guest rooms line a wide corridor that runs perpendicular to the main spine of the building. Warm and buffed linoleum covers the floors so that one can enjoy padding along the corridors noiselessly in sock-clad feet.

The place is deserted. Usually there would be biological or other scientific researchers staying here, working on projects in the field or leading student residencies. The walls of the corridors are lined with posters detailing previous projects charting the effects of changing climate. Display cases on the way to the cafeteria house natural treasures found on field trips in the area. In a month the place will be full but for now, it’s just me. At 3 o’clock each weekday, the few staff members—the station manager and the cook, the cleaners—go home. On weekends and public holidays, they stay away entirely. I had anticipated peace and quiet, but this is more than I expected.

Soile bids goodbye on the third day to return to Rovaniemi; she asks whether I’m having second thoughts at being here alone. I can always bail out early, she says. Once a day, a bus stops up on the main road to begin the seven-hour journey south. And there are bicycles one can borrow to ride along the road to town.

Outside every window in the still-freezing air the snow plumps high like a doona, minding its distance from the human structures that destroy it with their warmth. There is not a window in the building the sun doesn’t shine through at one hour or another. At midnight, it illuminates the length of the residents’ corridor through the glass door at the end, as if lighting a dance show or some Chekhov afternoon behind an old proscenium.

I remember how my mother used to take me to the theatre when I was a teenager, just the two of us. The main local company in Perth was a reconstructed English provincial repertory that had washed up by the estuary of that most far-flung quasi-English province, led by a dashingly theatrical veteran of the scene named—as if a Noel Coward character—Edgar Metcalfe. In the grand tradition of actor managers, Mr. Metcalfe frequently shouldered the burden of the leading role as well as the director’s mantle: Shakespeare, Ibsen, whatever it might be. Meanwhile, in the first year of high school, I had my own theatrical debut when chosen, for reasons never understood, to play the eponymous butler Crichton in the play, The Admirable Crichton. I was good at following instructions, maybe that was it. My characterisation entirely consisted of a gesture I was instructed, by Mr. Parkinson, the English teacher, to perform whenever possible: clasping my hands together in front of my stomach and rubbing them back and forth against each other. Horizontally: that was important. This gesture, a sign of deference befitting my servile station, would become ironic in Acts Two and Three when, along with my master’s family, I was shipwrecked on a desert island and my versatile talents saw me emerge as the natural leader of the group, the master to my masters. The hand gesture transformed into a sign of unflappable strength during my ascendancy. Although I remember no details of the plot, Wikipedia maintains that in Act Three, the daughter of my erstwhile lord and master fell in love with me and I would have married said beautiful Lady Mary had I not chosen duty over love and responded gallantly to a rescue signal that saw us all returned to England and our previous class positions. (Clasps hands together in front of stomach with noble stoicism…) It felt like the play was hundreds (if not thousands) of years old ,but it turns out to have been written in 1902 by J  M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame.I cannot recall whether Lady Mary was played by a girl or boy; whether it was a co-production with our sister school or an all-male cast half in drag. Why does it matter? What does matter in this story? The light along the corridor, the hands, my mother, the theatre, Perth in the 1970s, home, comfort, being on a stage, distant in my head, going through the motions, dressed up, performing awkwardly.

*

In Kilpisjarvi, almost everything is closed. The caravan park, tourist shop, lakeside kiosk, boat cruise jetty. Most of the restaurants are shuttered, save the bland-looking cafe upstairs by the petrol station and the old place with the roof painted bright red to attract attention from the highway. In the latter, although its black gravel car park currently houses, almost exclusively, giant piles of snow, you can find a no-nonsense all-you-can-eat buffet lunch that breaks out towards splendour in the sweets department. The general store plies a year-round trade, underwritten by cashed-up Norwegians who cruise across the border to stock up with ten-kilogram slabs of frozen reindeer meat for a fraction of the price they’d pay at home.

The thaw and melt are late this year; the in-between time is extended. Like everywhere, the weather can no longer be relied on. There’s no clear ground yet for summer hikers. The lake is not yet free of ice for boating. On the other hand, the ice fishing season has come and gone; the ice is thin and dangerous. The only skiers left are the Finnish national cross-country ski team on a preseason training camp. Even they are leaving as we arrive, completing their last routines, which consist of strange lunging and leaping actions sans skis or snow across an empty car park. As they depart, the only hotel in town shuts its doors for annual holiday.

*

One day, after I have been living there alone for a week, a stranger comes. I’m not sure when I first become aware of her arrival. The station manager advised that a woman would be turning up and staying for some time. I didn’t know why she was coming to the station or what she would be doing there. By this time, I have grown accustomed to my solitude. On weekdays, the cafeteria will open just for me, if I have booked in for a meal. I turn up at the appointed hour. A generous one-person version of the standard breakfast or lunch buffet is laid out in gleaming stainless steel dishes along a counter, with fruit, bread, and various condiments on another bench nearby. I fill a tray with food, trying not to pile my plate too high to compensate for being the only diner. Then I sit, book open, at one of the many empty tables I can choose from, looking out at the snow and the bare branches of the birches poking through where, in several places, empty nests can be seen awaiting the activities of summer. As the days go on, I notice more and more birds fluttering about, increasingly busy and excited. Occasionally the maintenance man, the station manager, and other staff will be sitting at a table chatting when I arrive. They always hastily get up and leave, carrying their dishes with them, as if there is some protocol against sharing the lunchroom with outsiders. I try to make eye contact with the cook to say kiitos (thank you—my only word in Finnish applicable outside a sauna), but she invariably positions herself in a small office just out of view as I arrive. Until the stranger comes, these mealtime encounters, or missed encounters, are the only fixed points in what otherwise stretches as one endless day, a subtly transforming duration in which the illusion of night can only be artificially arranged. As if self-parenting, one has to consciously decide it is time to close the curtains, pull the blinds down and go to bed, covering the eyes if possible with airline-issued eyeshades so that, with the eyelids also closed, conditions will finally approximate darkness.

I first run into the stranger in the residents’ kitchen. After Soile left, this became my private evening domain. Each night, I worked through another segment of a menu improvised from the small range of groceries available at the store, listening to mildly interesting podcasts while I cooked. One night, she is there on a lounge chair when I arrive. She is eating fruit and yoghurt from a bowl while watching ice hockey on TV. Finland versus Russia, its arch-rival (another former imperial overlord). Small and self-contained, the woman looks to be in her late 50s, not much older than me. We exchange a single, universal word—hello—then she turns back to the TV. As I start to cook, the sound of the ice-hockey commentators fills the room. The players slide back and forth across the screen in their heavily padded costumes, whacking each other violently. When the game finishes, she turns the television off with the remote, stands up, nods at me politely, leaves the room, and vanishes until the following evening.

In my room at the biological station, where I spend most hours of the day, I don’t feel cooped up. I have a bathroom and a single bed on which I lay down with my eyeshades in place at the appropriate time each night. That is when the silence is at its most textured, inviting in the sound of dreams. At least once a day, I venture out for a walk or a bike ride in the direction either of the town; the lake or the closed-up caravan park with its dormant restaurant; gift shop and kiosk overlooking the lake, where you must be able to buy ice-creams in the summer. I talk to nobody; I scarcely see anyone except the shadows driving cars and semi-trailers along the American-style highway complete with its line of telephone poles and painted row of dashes converging in the distance. I take photographs of ice and snow in endless configurations, never tiring of their novel superfluity.

At the desk in my room I write, and I find it possible to write there in the biological station, in the soothing silence. I work seriously in the ruins. Once a day, I stop writing for a while and sit in the chair, cocooned in the solitude, not imagining I am far away but that I am close and present. Close to words but temporarily unwritten.  

Write about what you desire, advises the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, or perhaps he advises: write from your desire. As if either would be a straightforward injunction. Are what we desire and the way that we desire it our deepest, most humiliating secrets? (Koestenbaum would say, good, write about it all the more). And therefore, in the gap between what we want and what it is acceptable for us to want, brews the frustrations that lead to rage that turns outward into hatred that begets violence and cruelty and all the ways we become capable of causing suffering, and thus in a single sentence I have attempted virtually a universal theory of human everything, which is always a tendency I have had a weakness for.

The biological station is tightly sealed and insulated, its low body anchored to the ground so that no matter how extreme the weather outside, it remains immoveable. All the doors are airlocked. Do I feel at home? I certainly feel safe and secure, once I became accustomed to the building, its eerie scale and emptiness. Maintained at such a level of cleanliness that no unintended trace of previous inhabitants can be found, it is not a place you’d find idle scratchmarks on the desks in the seminar room or gobs of chewing gum underneath. A ball of fluff on the floor in the corner of a room would be unimaginable. Being sealed, it is also silent. It is so well engineered that the systems of airflow, heating and cooling, are virtually undetectable, as if the building itself is simply warm-blooded. Womb-like: the mothership.

“Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house,” says French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book, The Poetics of Space. How lucky we are, those of us for which this is true, who are not born homeless, seeking refuge, or within domestic violence. For Bachelard, the house is the space that shelters daydreams. It is the maternal space of intimacy, where solitude can roam free in attics, nooks and cellars. Or, as in a brick bungalow in Perth, Australia, the concrete front porch, sun-warmed back steps. “In the daydream itself, the recollection of moments of confined, simple, shut-in space are experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all to be possessed,” says Bachelard. I have come to the biological station to learn again to daydream. I want to possess that space of solitude where daydreams can make themselves at home; I want to find a new place from which to write.

In memory we cannot know ourselves in time, says Bachelard. We can only know ourselves in a sequence of different spaces, tableaux in which different characters, human and nonhuman, appear. When we set out ‘in search of things past’, we actually want ‘time to “suspend” its flight,’ he says. ‘In its countless alveoli, space contains compressed time. This is what space is for.’ In my first childhood home, the corridor of bedrooms ran perpendicular to the main spine of the house. There, off that corridor, was my bedroom and next to it, my mother’s bedroom, where she slept alone. A few steps away at the far end of the corridor stood the door into the lounge room. This was far enough away to play, in the space between, an entire game of football with a balloon left over from a party. I would do so on a rainy afternoon, daydreaming in slow motion, alone, as if filling in time until my father—the first stranger—might arrive.

What I looked forward to most when I was a kid was getting away. Leaving home so as to be able to return. The shortest regular trip we made as a family was to my Gran’s house, each Sunday evening. The four of us are boxed into the little Mazda, my mother driving, my brother, sister, and myself. It was before seat belts were compulsory. The limbs of children, especially mine, much smaller than my siblings’ six and seven years older, were free to loll in all directions. The mood in the car, in memory, is always peaceful as we travel among the stars and sand dunes that together still won out in those days over houses and streetlights on the winding beachside road between Mt. Claremont and Scarborough. At Gran’s, more comfort: lemon steamed pudding and cousin games, the licence to watch commercial channels before the man said goodnight girls and boys. Just don’t talk politics or religion; Uncle Noel is to the right of Genghis Khan.

For days the only time I ever see the stranger is each evening in the shared kitchen where she watches television for an hour or so—sport or a nature documentary—and eats something minimal from the fridge. Never walking in the corridors or at the cafeteria.  What does she do all day? Is she a nun? Perhaps a Buddhist nun? A very down-to-earth Finnish ice-hockey-loving Buddhist nun?

Like the biological station itself she seems sealed and self-contained, comfortable in being alone. Each time I go into the kitchen to make a meal I hope she won’t be there. The way she sits there, absorbed in the sounds and images of the television, ignoring me.

If not a nun, what might her day job be? Retired? She doesn’t look quite old enough. So alone! Gay or straight? Most likely straight, but what am I, a psychic? Does she wonder what I’m doing here? What has the manager told her? A writer from Australia…? What even would that mean?

The house of Bachelard’s dreams is vertical: it should have either three or four stories, he insists, including a cellar, an attic, and multiple staircases in-between. Our house, like most of those I knew in Perth, comprised one floor only. All of the other floors were cut off—existing only in the imagination of the child who searched for them. This typified our lot as settler descendants in Perth: to be cut off, dwelling somewhere only the most basic of structures had been put in place. Yes, there were houses, but houses with phantom limbs that existed only in the books we read. How I longed for a staircase! As an adult, as soon as I could afford to renovate a house that’s what I wanted. A staircase. It didn’t matter where it led to, so long as there was a room upstairs. Our childhood house in Perth, like the biological station in Kilpisjarvi, existed on the horizontal plane. We were told our house had previously been a duplex or else had been intended to be a duplex. That’s why it had two front doors next to each other on the front porch. Supposedly. The word duplex hovered mysteriously. What was a duplex? Two half-houses stuck together sideways, like conjoined twins.

Our relationship— the stranger’s and mine—only progresses in so far as we grow accustomed to each other. I become more comfortable ignoring her as I chop and fry my vegetables, boil my pasta, sit at the table with my glass of wine and book. I don’t offer to share and neither does she. Was there a moment—an exchange of gestures—early on, in which the subject of sharing food and drink was raised and a protocol established in the negative? Actually, I think not. It was precisely in the lack of gesture—when I opened and poured the wine, she didn’t register the movement or the sound—that our way of being together became declared. It seems obvious she isn’t secretly hoping I will pour her a glass and invite her to the table. Or perhaps she is shy, as I am. We are conjoined twins, a duplex; an invisible wall of language and experience between us.

Neither of us wants to make the first move towards a greater intimacy of companionship. That reticence, in common, becomes a bond. Whereas in most situations, our social diffidence—the feeling that our emotional lives are somehow ziplocked and inaccessible even to our own perception—might be uncomfortable, here in the biological station it feels like an acceptable, even estimable, quality.

Some time goes on like this. A few days, a week, it’s hard to tell. Outside my bedroom window hangs a mercury thermometer, one way to measure the difference between the days. Likewise, the changing cloudscape. I can’t get over the uncanny feeling of being on top of the world, not only because of the latitude, but because of the peculiar topography of Kilpisjarvi, where a sliver of Finnish territory extends a few hundred metres north of the biological station, touching Sweden and Norway both at once. The only road into Kilpisjarvi rises up and up from the body of Finland proper and then, as it widens to become an immaculately engineered Norwegian highway, drops down again on the other side in a series of sweeping curves cutting deep into pine clad valleys as it approaches the great fjord of Lyngen. It is as if each country could only be in charge of its own distinctive and contrary mode of landscape, and thus the border drawn—Finland flat and lake-strewn, Norway carved in giant fingers, ocean-drowned. And Kilpisjarvi, this remote place where the two are stitched together, the occasion celebrated with a magnificent lake large enough for a ferry to take passengers between one country and another.  If and when the ice has melted. Above the lake, the Sami holy mountain they call Saana.

Are we all confined each to our own biological station? Often it feels as if the patterns of movement within my body—the corridors of thought, repetitive paths of muffled feeling—are deeply earthed in a time before I can remember. As if the architecture of my emotional life has been—always already—laid out, and its systems whir away silently in the background, constantly recycling their limited repertoire of images. I am now in middle age, according to objective human measures of mortality, but not yet reconciled to the bewildering events of infancy, the aftermath of being born.

The biological station! It is body as well as home—bio as well as logical. How long can we rest suspended in the in-between time, when winter has left already and summer has not yet come? A residency is always a suspension and a suspension is a pause, held fragile in its instability and the rituals of care that make it possible. What happened those two weeks? I wrote, I ate, I walked. I did such normal things.

*

A second woman arrives, and is welcomed by a third who has arranged to meet her at the biological station. The third woman is the well-known Finnish artist and scholar, Leena Valkeapää, whom Soile knows—the latter had emailed to warn me of this impending swell of sociality. Leena is married to a Sami reindeer herder and lives thirty kilometres south in a house some distance off the main road on another lake. She is worried about how she will get home because the ice on her lake is breaking up and her snowmobile could fall through  if she isn’t skilful enough in how she speeds across the cracks and holes. In the summer they travel by boat, in winter by snowmobile. In the in-between time it is hard to get anywhere, although a walking path winds the long way through the forest. The other woman, who Leena has come to welcome, has driven down from Tromso, in the far north of Norway. She has retired from a long career as a laboratory technician working in IVF and other fields to become a bio-artist. She is here to collect biological samples in the forest (if the snow clears) that she will later smear across glass plates and magnify into large, two-dimensional images. The two women inspect the deserted biological laboratories. The Norwegian bio-artist feels totally at home, like a chef inspecting an industrial kitchen, assessing the familiar tools she’ll probably be using: microscopes with cameras; glass containers and so on. Leena, who has acted so warmly, briefly, as our host, now departs to try to get home, one way or another, before it gets too late. The Norwegian and I thank her and say goodbye.

The Norwegian speaks excellent English. Her favourite English word is super-cool, and she herself is super-friendly. One of her current art projects is a site-specific community kitchen that pops up in abandoned buildings during festivals, inviting people to help cook and share free dinners from donated food that would otherwise be wasted. Within a few hours at the biological station, she has discovered much more about the mystery woman than I ever would have.

She chuckles to me in the kitchen later when we are alone: “Hehe. She is so Finnish! They are all like that. They don’t talk.”

“Do you know what she is  doing here?” I ask.

“Ice-fishing.”

Oh. Ice-fishing? I thought the season was over. The Norwegian woman shrugs.

That’s why I never saw the woman during the day. She woke up early to go ice-fishing.

“She comes here for a week, once a year, on holiday from the south, because it is cheap and quiet. And she loves ice-fishing.”

It’s a wonder I have never noticed the fisherwoman out there on the lake.

Next time I see the icefisher in the kitchen, I say, “So, you are fishing?”

She grins broadly: “Yes.”

“You fish in the ice?” I say.

“Yes.” She smiles again.

This is as far as our conversation goes, but it feels like we have been chatting and laughing together all afternoon and when we separate, we each trail a warm glow of social interaction back along the corridor in our woollen socks. Later, I tell the Norwegian woman about the conversation. She has come in from the back porch where she likes to chain smoke cigarettes in a puffer jacket. She judges this development super-cool.

The in-between time: Leena, the Finnish artist with the reindeer herding family, said this was the season she loved best. I was surprised. I had thought everyone would be in a hurry for the summer to arrive: the time for boating, ice-creams, sprouting leaves and nesting birds, berries and flowers on the ground. All of the nostalgic comforts. But she preferred it now, in the liminal; she preferred the patches. In winter, the landscape is a plane of white and in summer, unremitting greens. In between, with the snow half-melted, the ice half thawed, the field of vision makes complex patterns with scars and blotches, nudges of rock, floating jigsaws.

*

When the day comes I am due to leave the biological station, the sun burns in an unusually cloudless sky. I determine to make the most of it. Before breakfast, I take off towards the lake to try out—for the first time—the snowshoes the manager invited me to borrow. Sitting on the wooden jetty that leads out from the disused sauna to the icehole that seasoned Finnish sauna enthusiasts would plunge into in between their stints of sweating, I grapple with the snowshoes in the cold, eventually succeeding in clipping them into place. In slow motion, larger-than-life awkwardness, I stump along the lakeside across the freshly refrozen snow. And there I see her, for the first time, fishing. No, not quite—I had seen her from above, near the front entrance to the biological station, when I first stepped out that morning and was standing by the flagpole underneath the entwined lemmings. I had looked down upon the lake and seen a tiny black figure sitting very still, where she might have been sitting every previous day if I had ever thought to look. I know immediately who it is on the ice, and that I must take the snowshoes down beside the lake and approach her.

She is sitting on a stool about thirty metres from the lakeshore, fishing in a hole evidently cut out with the ice drill lying nearby. This fishing is in fact the sort of thing a Buddhist nun might do, so meditative and quiet. But I’m sure our Norwegian friend would have discovered if the icefisher were any kind of cleric. Gingerly ,I take a few steps out onto the lake toward her, wary of the fragility of its icy crust. She turns to me and waves. I wave back. I stop approaching. It doesn’t seem right to go too close to her. I might fall through the ice and/or I might spoil her solitude, her reverie of communication with the fish circling in the depths below. Obviously she likes to sit there on her stool, fishing through the hole in the ice, for hours on end. Rugged up in her down coat she is perfectly comfortable. I don’t know and will never know any of the story of her life outside this place, what home she is away from, whether she is alone there too or surrounded by people and animals awaiting her return. For some time I stand there, looking around at the view of the mountains from this perspective, seeing how the lake’s stillness and flatness, its crustiness as if it were a salt pan glistening in the sun, extends in every direction until its airbrushed meshing with the folds of snow and rock around its hem.

Afterwards, I decide to climb a little of the mountain, Saana. The refrozen snow is firm to walk on in the snowshoes. I find the path behind the deserted caravan park that leads up to the ridge. I go further than I intend. The day is so clear and dry; it is now or never. High up, I can see vistas opening up to the north and west, dramatic Norwegian peaks. Patterns, patches, just as the Finnish artist had described. A snaking duckboard wends its way up the steep, rocky ridge where the snow is thinner. I take off my snowshoes and leave them by the path for my return. Up ahead, I can see a single hiker disappearing over the rise  onto the long plateau near the summit. I get as far as a vantage point high above the lake from where I can look down at the biological station. I try to find the window of my room. Out on the lake, about thirty metres from the edge, there is a small black speck like a piece of dirt on the surface of some eyeglasses. It is her. The icefisher. All these hours later she is still out there, fishing patiently. From this distance, she could not appear smaller and yet I feel an uncanny sense of connection with her. We are strangers, each sitting separate and far apart, but we know each other. We are at home in being side-by-side.

When I get back for lunch and am packing up my stuff, she is in the hallway with an old canvas rucksack.

“I have my frozen fish in here,” she says. “I’m going home today.”

“Me too! On the bus?”

“Yes, on the bus,” she says. We laugh at the coincidence.

‘How many fish do you have to take home?’ I ask.

“Ten,” she says. I am impressed but she says ten is disappointing. Usually she would have more but because this year the snow is late in melting she hasn’t been able to walk up to the other lake behind the mountain where the fishing’s better. “Still, ten is good,” I say.

We walk up to the bus stop alongside each other. We stop and wait for the bus to come. I stand up my suitcase and she leans her rucksack, with the fish inside, against the wooden bus shelter.

“Can I take your photograph?” I ask. No. She shakes her head.

 

Acknowledgments: This essay was made possible thanks to an invitation to visit Finland from Soile Veijola, Professor of Cultural Studies of Tourism in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland, and was written with the support of RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication and non/fictionLab.

 

Deadman’s Pass

We sent him in there by himself.

Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map, and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for our dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say that deep down, we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say sending him in there for tire chains was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we’d been carrying out for a while now. Because any one of us could and should have gone in there instead. And by the time it really registered what we had asked him to do, by the time I realized he was truly alone in there, I found myself jamming a gas nozzle frantically back into a pump and haphazardly sliding across some frozen sludge in the parking lot as I began to run towards the front door of the Les Schwab tire dealership in La Grande, Oregon.

It was a snowy day—a couple feet at least and counting, which is why we were at the Les Schwab looking for tire chains in the first place. And as I opened the door of the Les Schwab, I saw him immediately. There he stood at the checkout counter in a room that overwhelmingly smelled of burnt popcorn and rubber and something floral. He stood with his hands in his pockets; his feet shifted from side to side on the checkered linoleum. The snow on his pants was melting in pools on the floor. There was a line behind him, and it was growing longer.

“Sir,” said a tall, slender man in a greasy jumpsuit standing behind the checkout counter.

But my father said nothing.

Sir,” the man said again. And still my father stood there, muted.  

“Sir–?”

“I’m sorry sir, but what exactly do you need?” said the man in the jumpsuit.   

“Sir, can you hear me?” he said again.

If my father could hear him, he didn’t let on. He stood staring at something behind the counter. And as I walked through the crowd towards the front of the line, I could feel the man’s questions reverberate across the room and then fall flat in the depth of my father’s silence. The man in the jumpsuit spoke again and again my father didn’t speak. And in that next silent pause, the man in the jumpsuit began to pull back. It was a subtle sort of retreat—the man looked over his left shoulder for a moment. His eyes scanned the length of the room for another. He seemed to gaze at the back wall for a second too long. There were large posters covering the walls of this particular Les Schwab. Large posters filled with photographs of tires overlaid with big, neon yellow price tags and promises. Promises of long-term car care and lifetime tire guarantees and friendly customer services and smiles. There was an empty popcorn machine in the corner sitting next to a circle of under-stuffed couches where people sat and waited and now, were watching the man at the checkout counter. Above an empty coffee pot, there was a television turned to the Weather Channel informing us that we should not have been driving that day. Beyond that, the room was mostly quiet except for the squeaking of rubber soles on checkered linoleum and the mutterings of the growing mass of people waiting in line for the customer service desk. And of course, there was now the sound of a man in a jumpsuit becoming quickly agitated at the customer in front of him.

Sir,” the man tried again, this time louder. “Can I help you?” But by the last question, the man’s voice no longer held the veil of patience. Despite what his name tag said, he was no longer interested in helping this man at the front of the line. There was something about my father’s silence that had unnerved him—a glimpse of something unnamed. By now I was standing right next to my father so the man in the jumpsuit shifted his attention to me. He turned to me like I owed him, and everybody else who was waiting behind us, an apology.

How quickly the room turned against us. We were taking up time and we were taking up space and it was getting darker and the line was getting longer and the snow kept falling and everyone needed chains on their tires and yet there stood my father, still silent and still staring at something behind the counter.

“We need to know if we can get through the pass,” I spoke up, finally—I was far too late and I knew it. I placed my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, so we were linked.

“We’ve been driving for the past three days,” I said, offering something—some semblance of an explanation. “We’re moving—most of our stuff is in the back of a U-Haul but we’re concerned about the snow. Can we put chains on our trailer? Can we make it through Deadman’s Pass?” I said. I risked a quick glance up at my father midway through my barrage of questions for the jumpsuit, but his gaze never met mine. He was still staring, still not moving, still not speaking. The large, dirty puddles on the floor surrounding my father’s feet were growing steadily in diameter.

No, we couldn’t make it through Deadman’s Pass with the U-Haul, the man in the jumpsuit said. No, they had no more chains to sell us. No, he didn’t know when the pass would be clear again. Tomorrow? A week? Two? No, the hotels were likely full by now. But yes, we could store the U-Haul behind the tire shop if we wanted to. No, they couldn’t guarantee that the trailer wouldn’t be broken into. We could leave it there, if we wanted—drive over the pass, then drive back and get it later, maybe. If getting over the pass was so important tonight. Come back some other day, the jumpsuit said. Come back with someone who was speaking this time. Come back when the winter had passed and the snow had left and there was sunshine here, again, maybe.

And with my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, I nodded to the jumpsuit. I led and my father followed. I turned away from the counter, away from melting snow, away from the silence and the tires and towards the crowd who was waiting in line. There was anger there, a sudden collection of glances channeled our direction. They had their own snow and tires and chains to deal with and they didn’t have all day to stand here. But what was anger in their glances—at the least, some confused annoyance—turned to something else when I led him away. I could see it. They were dogs who smelled a bear in the woods. They looked flustered, they shuffled their feet. They saw something in his face that I had been staring at for years and it frightened them.

*

The day the movers came to pick up our home and put it in a truck bound for Seattle, we were not ready. All morning, my mom and I were frantically packing, sifting through boxes of old wedding presents—auburn candlesticks and cheap glass vases, all in packaging never opened—remnants of my parents’ big Southern wedding that never did fit them. Which is why the boxes had remained boxed for nearly thirty years.

We didn’t have room for most of it. We were throwing things away. That morning, three of my aunts had come over early to collect most of the attic storage we couldn’t take with us. We scattered our things on the old ping-pong table and they claimed the stuff they wanted. My aunts were in tears. They gathered old, tarnished candlesticks and lacy tablecloths—the female wedding inheritances of our family circa 1800. They took the blue china, the oversized forks, and all other remnants of the past we didn’t have room for. We were tenth generation Arkansans, and we were getting rid of the evidence. My aunts asked us if we were sure we wanted to let it all go. They said surely I would someday want this passed down to me at my wedding. They gathered it in the back of their respective cars and left.

I was standing next to my mom in the kitchen of the house she built herself when the movers—two bearded middle-aged men who smelled of chewing tobacco and unwashed Carhartts— entered our house to pick up the boxes we were supposed to have packed already. They spoke with a twang; they moved quickly through our house, they surveyed our furniture. They told us what we could sell in auction and what we couldn’t. They told us what things were worth. They tracked in mud on my mother’s floors. They dropped a lamp.  

“It must be a good job your husband got, what with you all pickin’ up and leaving so soon—moving across the country and sorts. Must be a real good job. Must be real good. Where you goin’? Washington—that’s right. I hear it rains something awful up there. Must be a real good job what with you movin’ and all. This here’s a real nice house. You built this yourself? Shit. Real good job it must be to leave this place.”

My mother paused and took in a breath through her teeth. I was holding translucent packing tape—I couldn’t find the end of the roll to pull out a good strand to shut the box of old sheets and frayed towels I was holding. Yet I paused with her. The moment dropped, it collapsed between us. We sat in silence for a moment too long. And then my mom smiled—a big, crisp, full-teeth smile that reminds you of all those things you think you know about Southern hospitality. She smiled at those men tracking dirt into the house she built herself, the men auctioning off her furniture. She told them it was a great job. She nodded up and down, still crisp, still smiling, still nodding. Because she couldn’t tell him there was no job. She couldn’t tell him the reason she had no address for him to send the moving van to was because there was no house to go to. She couldn’t even tell him why it was Seattle she had chosen, because it could have been anywhere, really. It just mattered that it wasn’t here. She couldn’t tell him that one day her husband had stopped talking, that he slept most of the day. That, after twenty-five years of working, he just stopped one day a year ago. That if you sent him to the grocery store for toilet paper and bread, he would come back with unripe mangoes and brown sugar. That sometimes he would get up at 3 a.m. and start making the bed with my mom in it. That doctors kept throwing out words like “mid-life crisis” and “depression” and asserting that these have many unexpected side effects. That he started watching movies beginning at nine in the morning, sometimes earlier. He started watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Bloody, war movies. He turned the volume up so high drowning everything else out until all you could hear were gunshots.

*

The drive from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Seattle, Washington, is thirty-one hours in good driving weather, but that was not the weather we had that January. That January, the roads in Kansas had turned to ice. Big, long sheets of ice that made the U-Haul we were towing slide haphazardly back and forth over the lane line. And because it was Kansas, every rest stop perpetually reminded us with magnets and stickers that there was no place like home, which felt like the definition of a cruel joke. And Kansas lead to Colorado and the Rockies, which then sent us to Wyoming and to Utah, which was this long trek of negative-degree wind that rocked the car for hours and made hissing noises where the old windows didn’t completely shut.

We didn’t have a place to live yet—four rental agreements fell through because of internet scams and confusion. While I drove, my Mom was on the phone explaining that no, we didn’t have any income, yes, we had a dog, no our credit wasn’t so great, but regardless you should definitely rent to us because we were really nice people. We ate Denny’s five-dollar Grand Slam breakfasts every morning and Subway’s five-dollar foot-long sandwiches every other meal. Five people for five dollars forever. We made it like this, diverting when the roads were bad. Stopping when the snow was too thick. Moving forward when we could. All the way to Le Grande, Oregon, and to Deadman’s Pass where we had to stop.

*

We sent him in there by himself. Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for my dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say deep down we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say it was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we had been carrying out for a while now. Tests to see if my father was really changing. Mom, the boys, and I—we assigned him small tasks—things that not two years ago would already have been done long before we had even thought to ask. Little habits, routines my father had delighted in years before. Things like mowing the lawn. Fixing the car. Emptying the dishwasher. Getting up in the morning.  

And when he failed, which he was doing more and more regularly those days, we did intricate cerebral acrobatics that created excuses in our minds so that we could reason away his absence. In our minds, if we admitted that we noticed, we would lose him. And every time we saw a glimpse of him again, every time I took him hiking in the woods or walking near the water, he started to laugh again. He talked a bit more.

One Christmas when I was home, I decided that we were going to run together, he and I. Every day we would put on our sweats and hats and go out into the rainy woods to run the trails. And one day, about a week into our training, he took off ahead of me, sprinting. He turned a corner and I lost him for a moment. And then I picked up speed and turned that same corner and he was gone. And then I paused and I panicked and I yelled his name. And then suddenly there was my father, leaping out of the woods from behind a tree, yelling “GOTCHA!” and then proceeded to lift me into the air, tickling and laughing and grinning. At that turn of the corner, he was back. He was cackling the way only he could cackle, he was looking me in the eye; he was skipping. He held his arms out like airplane wings yelling “RACE YA” behind him as he took off up the trail. We did this nearly every day for weeks. It took three miles of running to get glimpses of him like this. It was like clockwork. Three miles into certain runs he would start crying, weeping—asking me what had gone wrong and trying to make plans to make it right. Five miles in, the glimpses seemed more solid. But by the time we had cooled off, he started to revert. His clarity lasted all of 15 minutes after leaving the woods. And no matter how long or how far we ran it was the same every time. A glimpse. A small one, certainly, but enough to make us think we had jumped to conclusions too fast. Perhaps it was just depression, as so many had said. We scolded ourselves for thinking the worst. He was too young and too strong and too good. These tests we constructed were faulty, we unconsciously reasoned, he just needed more time and more chances. So, in the spirit of denial and opportunity, we sent him in to get chains for the tires.

*

A team of men in greasy jumpsuits showed us where we could park the U-Haul next to the trash cans. We were leaving all our possessions in the space next to the Les Schwab fenced-in trash heap. After backing it through the fence, we started taking out the necessities. Clothes, toothbrushes, medications, schoolbooks. My brothers, Andrew and Jacob—aged sixteen and seventeen—were technically delinquent because they had been out of school for too long. They were not enrolled in any schools because we did not have a house with an address that would allow us to enroll them.

Next to cardboard boxes and old tires we pulled all our stuff out and placed it in the snow. We stared at the supposed necessities of our lives strewn about in the snowy gravel patch between the trash cans and the back of the Les Schwab. Out came our clothes. Out came our pillows. Out came the dog food and our shoes and the winter coats and our sheets. Out came the cast iron skillet. The U-Haul housed all the supposed essentials and now here we were yet again whittling our stuff down, repacking our things, stuffing them into the back of our already stuffed car.

My mother and I were talking logistics with the owner of the Les Schwab so we stood with our backs to my father as he continued to pull out the rest of our stuff and put it in the snow. A few moments later, we heard a faint sound of alarm coming from the voice of my youngest brother, Jacob. I turned around to see him waving his arms faster and faster in the air.

“Dad—wait, no—Dad, stop—Dad, wait! What are you doing?” Jacob yelled, moving towards my father. He had started quickly putting everything back in the U-Haul. My father had first unpacked the trailer, put just about everything in the snow, and then suddenly, only a moment later, before we had a chance to put it in our car, started piling everything back into the U-Haul. It was a complete undoing of what he had just done. Turning at the sound of my brother’s alarm ,my voice followed with similar confusion and escalation. It was like watching a VCR tape being rewound. His movements were mechanical, nearly identical to the unpacking he had just done, but in reverse. Only a few minutes had gone by and suddenly this tape had rewound to the opening credits.

It was my mother who responded the slowest, yet with the most alarm. She turned, she stopped. She yelled and she never yells. She shrieked my father’s name. Once, twice, and then yelling again, more forcefully:

 

WALT!

Walt.

walt

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

What is happening?

What is happening?

The four of us recoiled in unison. We paused, uncertain if we had broken something—an old, hidden wound split wide open now. Our cries carried that stench of admission—an acknowledgement that our unspoken trepidation had not only weaseled its way to the surface, but there it was, shouted into the hills towards Deadman’s Pass. Because we knew what had happened. We had just thrown dynamite into the hillside of that snowy mountain pass. And so there we stood, frozen and silent outside the Les Schwab, waiting for the avalanche we knew had to come.

The Cord

I can feel a nose and two feet. The feet are soft and pointed, positioned just above what I think is the head, only I don’t know if they are back feet or front feet. I need to know, because the answer tells me if I have one lamb coming out more or less okay, or two lambs tangled together with the first lamb folding its feet back and its twin doing a sort of backward somersault over the top of it. This would be bad.

It’s Sunday morning, about 2 am I think. I’ve been out in the three-sided shed with my twenty pregnant ewes for a few hours, and I have that all-nighter feeling when time is suspended and you are hovering slightly outside of your body. Near the shed’s opening, I sit in the damp hay blown over by fine snow that shines in the moonlight, and lean my back against the cold stone of the wall. Some of the ewes lie around me, eyes closed, chewing their cuds rhythmically, like the circular lines of a lullaby. A black ewe, Bluestem, lying on her side in an awkward position against the far wall, is the only reason I’m awake. I’ve had my eye on her since about 10 pm when her water broke.

Usually if a ewe doesn’t deliver on her own a couple of hours after her water breaks, it’s a good idea to help her out. It often signals that something is wrong with the way the lamb is positioned in the birth canal. A ewe straining to deliver a lamb that has its legs or head bent back, or a lamb that’s tangled up with a twin coming out at the same time, can rupture her womb or end up delivering a dead lamb. I’ve waited to see what Blue can do on her own, but now she is exhausted, heaving on her side, her eyes wild.

I stand up and stretch my back, wash my arm with cold iodine water from a tin bucket, and roll my thick sleeve down. I’m suddenly bone-cold. I step out of the shed where I can look east to the Northfield range, collecting myself. The stars are glittering on the snow. A few sheep have made their beds in the drifts, and they look at me placidly; their puffs of white breath like question marks against the dark.

Blue is my favorite. A runt at birth, rejected, her own mothering instinct is so strong that she never lets her lambs out of her sight. This is my fourth season of being a solo shepherdess. I’ve had rejected lambs and stillborn ones. Worst of all, a ewe with a grotesque prolapsed uterus that required an emergency call to the vet. But mostly I’ve had the joy of seeing lambs come into the world without a hitch. I have never delivered a pair of tangled twins.

My husband, Peter, is away, and though he knows nothing of the art of birthing, at least he could hold Blue’s head. My vet isn’t on call this weekend and his sub lives over an hour away. I have only the crazy birthing stories that shepherds tell each other about all the things that can go wrong and how they saved the day. Or mostly, how they didn’t. I push the worst possibilities from my mind—lambs that had to be dismembered to come out, wombs rupturing, emergency C-sections in the muck of the barn floor where the ewe was sacrificed for the lambs.

Strangely, as I come to the full realization that I have no choice but to work through this on my own, my fear subsides. Returning to Blue’s side, I roll up my sleeve and reach inside her,  following logic as a caver without a light might feel her way, inch by inch along the wall to a passage that’s familiar. The mass of womb and placenta are warm and wet, like a jellyfish in a tropical sea, while the bony wall of the pelvis grinds against the back of my hand. I find the nose, rounded and soft. Then, above the nose, I feel the hard triangles of two feet. I try to lock my fingers around them to pull and they twitch back. I’ve lost them! Gently I reach farther in, find the feet and trace the legs back against the unforgiving pelvic wall to the second joint. I do this to determine if what I have is a knee (front foot) or hock (back foot). I am 51 percent sure they are back feet. If they are, there is no anatomical way they belong to this nose, unless the lamb is a contortionist. To pull the first lamb out, I have to find its front feet, but they are folded back, out of my reach.

I step back from Blue, stand up, and rinse my arms. Her twins are jammed in the birth canal like tangled tree branches in a narrow stream during spring flood. The natural birthing position for a lamb is like a diver, head between front limbs, shoulders forward, and streamlined for the sprint to air. When the arms are back, the shoulders are too broad for the opening. This is the problem with the first lamb, I think. When they are breech, they can come out backwards, but there’s a high chance that the lamb will gulp in fluid on the way out as the umbilical cord is stretched and breaks. Then it’s unlikely to survive.

When our daughter Wren was born, the midwife lifted her to my chest and let Peter cut the cord near her belly. In my exhausted state where images took on a strangely supernatural intensity, I remember thinking how thick it looked, like a sinewy tree root you find while digging; the kind that resists every effort of the spade. Something muscular and undeniable.

A lamb’s umbilical is as translucent and soft as a bit of milkweed down. I’ve never had to break or cut a cord; it always happens on its own as the lamb slips out of its watery home and onto the hay, becoming a creature of the breathing world. This has always astonished me, that the cord that sustains life could be so thin. Perhaps it’s a function of being a creature that’s closer to the wild. A ewe would have to lick the birth membranes from the lamb and be on her way, to leave no trace of blood behind in case of predators. The lamb’s ability to get to its feet and follow its mom within a few minutes of being born is an evolutionary imperative.

Would Blue die in the wild, I wonder? No doubt all these thousands of years that humans have been shepherds and helped with births have tweaked the evolutionary arc so that not only the easy birthers pass on their genes. A nomadic shepherd would have helped a birth so that the whole flock could more quickly move out of the wind or away from predators, or to the first grass. Only in the worst cases would they have abandoned a laboring ewe and unborn lambs to the wolves. On a Vermont sheep farm, like most of these hill farms were in the 1800s, another live birth would have meant more food for a family that faced spring with little but potatoes and cabbage left in the cellar. The peaks surrounding our farm tell this story: Scrag, Stark, Hunger Mountain, while Shepard Brook drains their slopes to the Mad River. Those are the practical reasons, but I know there were more important reasons shepherds would do everything to assist a birth; this ancient, primal thing of caring for a flock is ultimately about human attachment.

*

Blue’s eyes are weirdly white, her sides no longer heaving. She lies still, lets me probe again. Inside her womb, I trace shapes of the yet-to-be-born with my fingertips over and over, guessing their anatomy aloud—front foot, nose, back foot—a lock picker in the dark. I have to get it right before I pull.

A faint noise comes from the doorway where a dim light spills from the barn into the sheep shed. Wren, who is three, has padded out through the snow in her dinosaur pajamas to find me. Her cold hands find the warmth of my neck beneath my parka hood and her too-big boots dangle from her sockless feet. Since her father was away, at bedtime I had told her, “If you wake up in the night and I’m not in my bed, then look outside. If the barn lights are on, I’m out there and you can come out. I’ll leave your boots by the door.” I honestly wasn’t sure she would figure it out, but I hadn’t come up with any better options.

“Are there babies?” she whispers close to my ear.

“Yes, soon,” I say, and I put her on a hay bale so she can watch. Idrape my huge coat around her.

I can’t take her back to bed. We are in this together now. The first time she saw a birth she was two months old, strapped to my chest under my down coat as I worked to deliver a lamb, her tiny head so close to my hands that I was afraid of hurting her. She is old enough now to observe more closely. I wonder if I should warn her about how seeing blood can be scary, and how when a lamb is born, it’s normal for it to be wet and limp, sometimes coated with a kind of yellow feces called meconium. And sometimes not alive.

But I say nothing. I’m certain now that I have found the missing feet that belong to this soft nose. I reach under the nose with two fingers, find the wrist joint, and unbend the folded-back legs, first one side and then the other. Then, I push the breech twin back. It will have to wait its turn. With my right hand locking the lamb’s feet together, I pull back hard while bracing my left palm hard on Blue’s side. I hear myself groan as I pull with all my strength to get the head through the opening, and the newborn slides into the world at last.  

She is tiny, legs frail as icicles, white with black spots around her eyes. The thinnest of translucent membranes covers her body and nose. She lifts her head immediately. I towel her off, wiping the birth sac from her nose and mouth, rubbing her curly black coat vigorously to stimulate her to rise. She feels ephemeral, a ragdoll of bone and blood, water and air. Blue makes a soft throaty nickering sound that ewes make only when licking their newborns. I stand back to watch the lamb shakily rise up on her front feet, fall, rise up, fall; her nose all the time butting against mom’s flank for milk. It reminds me of a sea turtle watch I went on years ago and wanting so much to help the hatchlings to the sea, but I was told  they needed to struggle into the waves and be tossed violently back up the beach again and again to get their strength to swim.

As the little creature butts against my legs, trying to find a teat, and Blue stands to lick and nuzzle her, I kneel and gently reach a hand into Blue’s vulva one more time. I can feel the breech lamb now, pointy feet, no head. He seems impossibly long as I pull his back feet with both hands and he finally lands on the hay with a thud, wet and shining. His head is strangely huge, with horn buds already breaking the skin. He doesn’t stir. I move fast to clear his nose and mouth, swing him like a pendulum by the back legs to shoot out the phlegm from his airway. It doesn’t seem to help. No cry, no gasp. I can feel panic rising in my chest. I lay him down and palpate his heart with two fingers. I’m whispering, praying, working so fast I’m not sure what I’m doing or why. Aware of Wren on the bale beside me, miraculously asleep, I will myself not to cry out.

It takes only seconds for the light to die out of his eye. His cord, like a snail’s trace, gleams in the hay.

I think, “That was it. His whole life.”

Blue rubs her nose on him and cleans him, pawing at the ground for him to rise. Her sharp feet scrape urgently at his still-warm lifeless body, and he crumples under her hoof like a discarded strip of towel, streaks of blood and mucus staining his white fleece. Blue’s call to him becomes louder, more desperate. It’s more than I can bear. I go up the stairs to get a burlap sack, which I line with some hay from the floor. I slide him in, back to the dark, with the smell of clover fields he will never know.

The sky is a pale yellow over the range. The wind has picked up just before the dawn and I realize I can no longer feel my feet. I lift Wren and she is warm and heavy against my chest. I know she will ask about the lambs when she wakes, and I will tell her. “One is good. One didn’t make it.”

In case she wants to see it, as proof of what death looks like—toddlers being more curious than sentimental—I decide to leave the lamb in his burlap by the door. Later I’ll do a sky burial— an offering to the coyotes— since the ground is frozen solid. This is a heartless practicality, or perhaps an earthly spirituality, that I’ve made my peace with as a shepherd. Rather than feel hardened by it, I feel more and more gratitude—for the birthing, the offering back, this strong love.