CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize
"February" by Jennifer Clark
In this shortlisted story for the 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, two women grapple with life in the wee hours of a frigid February night.
“Trudy. Wake up.”
She does, rolling towards me, her hair a fan of static against the pillow. Her husband grunts but does not wake. He has learned to sleep through interruptions. I shift uncomfortably, my heavy wet clothes cumbersome and suffocating in their tiny bedroom, my breathing abrupt and loud. It grates against the deep dark hush of a sleeping house.
“Something’s wrong.” She’s so sure she doesn't even make it a question.
“It’s bad. You've got to come. I don’t know what to do.”
I don’t wait for her to get dressed. I am already back outside, running down the hill in my over-sized boots, the packed snow glowing blue under the single yard light. There is snow, too, in the air, but the wind is whipping it so hard it doesn't have a chance to settle on the ground. It is February. It is two in the morning. It is minus thirty-seven degrees, a scratchy, unnerving cold, a battering on all sides, no up and no down, an isolating, infinite cold that seems colder for all the silence and space hovering over the farm. I am on my twelfth consecutive hour of work, my eighth in the dark, my seventh in the blizzard. In two hours I am finished, excused to my hired-hand bed in the attic, sleeping like a corpse until noon when I will wake, wash, eat and start again. Trudy sleeps while I work, wakes when I sleep, two women on opposite sides of a slow winter clock. We rotate in the same ridiculously exhausting pattern for days and weeks until it is over. But it is not over yet. We have barely started.
There have been twenty-three lambs tonight, all since midnight. It is too many all at once. And it is too cold.
I am out of breath by the time I reach the pen. I can hear the ewe moaning and bellowing and, I am certain, dying. I climb over the fence, taking the sticky flash-light out of my coverall pocket, the fuzz of my mitten freezing to it. I should have grabbed dry towels. I should have brought a sled. I should have waited for Trudy. I should have left the ewe alone. I should have never left her. I should have done something I obviously haven’t done.
I kneel in the snow, bitten by the wind, soaked with dread. I pray that nothing else happens in this moment—there is just no room for it. There have been twenty-three lambs tonight, all since midnight. It is too many all at once. And it is too cold. This is not the right night to be born. Last night I had only one lamb, strong, quick, close to the barn. It was too easy. Tonight is cruel. The lambs are small, two at a time, even three, with nervous mothers frazzled by the blizzard, dropping their lambs in the farthest corners of the farthest pens. I have not stopped running, ferrying near-frozen lambs in rock-hard towels to the dull warmth of the barn. Three have died, rigid and blue. I am caked with birth and dirty pink snow. My face is numb, my hands chapped, my twenty-one years not enough to prepare me for this strain, this absurdity.
I cannot wait for Trudy, even though I know I cannot do this without her. My adrenaline insists that I do something, even if it’s fumbling and futile. I peel off my mittens, my knuckles aching instantly, my skin cracking in fine lines down the back of my hands. I press my knee against the ewe, sprawled stiffly beside me. Her wet tail has frozen to her back. She is panting and twisting and leaking all over the snow. I feel for the lamb, still utterly wrong inside of her. It is strange that I know what to feel for, that experience has come so fast and so sure. Until this week I was experienced in nothing. I had never witnessed birth. Or death. I had never sutured a tear or burnt a dead body, I had never given a shot or coaxed milk out of an udder or stood outside at four in the morning, completely alone except for pacing animals and my own clouded breath. I had never done anything, except the routinely selfish and uncommitted acts of a young adult away from home for the first time. And now I’m doing everything, everything outside of my small selfish world and my normal comprehension. The universe, it seems, wants me to mature.
I am ashamed I cannot take it all in stride. It is, after all, just life and death, nature and biology, another lambing season on another farm on another night. It’s common and insignificant.
But it’s not. It is, in fact, a sharp, significant moment, a life on the very edge of being alive, a life that is pushing against my rough wet hand, a life that has a shape and a smell and such a profound connection to its mother that it threatens to erase her if it does not arrive. It doesn’t matter that it is an animal, bred for meat and wool, a lowly grey sheep. With death so near my fingertips, the thin heartbeat touching my skin, it only matters that it is a heart, that it is a life, that it will go if I don’t keep it here.
A minute passes. In that minute I am struck by the storm, by the intimacy of my hand around the unborn lamb, the heat of the mother, the weight of my clothes, the strange sensation of three pulses inside one womb, the peculiar nature of this freezing February night. The crunch of Trudy approaching the pen startles me, the strobe of her flashlight illuminating the jerking of the ewe, so weak now it is almost absent.
“How long?” The air changes as Trudy drops down beside me. Briskness and warmth.
“I don’t know. It’s been busy. She could have been here for a while. It’s all wrong. Sideways or something, but I can’t turn it.” I cry without wanting to.
Our hands trade places. Trudy is barely awake, but she is not tired like I am. Her mouth is set, her movements quick.
“There is a braided cord in the barn. I need it. And bring the knife, the one hanging by the door. And towels. And a syringe with sugar.”
“Should we move her inside?”
I run to the barn, adrenaline taking over again. I find everything, fill the syringe, run back. It is colder. The snow is falling so hard it is an assault.
I administer the sugar without instruction. I have done it before. It will give the ewe a jolt, a rush of her own blood, a second chance. Trudy has the cord inside of her, an anchor on the slippery lamb. She adjusts her weight against the ewe’s hindquarters, pushing, then pulling, labouring with the effort of not freezing or falling over. It becomes loud and messy, both of us trying to make it work, panting and bellowing like the ewe, desperate to be quick, slow because everything is against us. It stops making sense, what we are doing. It is an unnatural battle, an unforgivably inappropriate season, a wicked human ploy to have larger lambs by slaughter time. I feel sick that I have any part in it, sick that my part might fail.
I don’t ask why. It is a farm. You do what you don’t want to do because you have to do it, and I don’t want to see this part.
There is a sudden flicker, barely discernible through the blowing snow, but I see it. The set of Trudy’s mouth changes, her body slackens in the slightest way. It creates a pause, an unexpected stillness, and I am momentarily stupefied by how silent and unmoving the world is when we are not struggling within it.
“It’s dead.” I am so sure I don’t even make it a question.
“I have to take it out or the mother will die. Go to the barn. Don’t come back.”
I don’t ask why. It is a farm. You do what you don’t want to do because you have to do it, and I don’t want to see this part. I go to the barn.
The smell of the new lambs steaming under the heat lamps is musky and sweet. The whole barn is a smell, of milk and manure, straw and blood, wet fleece and propane. I pick up the pitchfork but I don’t use it. I am chilled, sweating, falling down tired, charged with my own horrific imaginings of what I’m not witnessing. The wind rattles the metal siding on the barn and makes me want to go home.
The door blows open. I turn to close it and Trudy appears. Drawn and grey.
“It was two. They were joined. They would never have made it. ”
“No.” She hangs up the knife, her shoulders slumped. “We need to check for lambs. I’ll come with you.”
I close the door behind me, lashed by the storm, dulled by fatigue, pulled by another lowly grey life on the very edge of being alive.