Short Story - Human Frailties

Another short story, this one about how disasters are rarely a result of what they seem to be.

by Christina Carson

Her hand reached through the blackness of the bedroom, hit the buzzer button after just one buzz and wearily slid back off the clock to hang limply over the edge of the bed. Lucy forced her eyes open to see the only thing visible in the room, the clock face indicating 3:00 AM. She dragged her weary body out from under the covers and was reminded of the temperature they suffered every winter in this wreck of an old house as she pulled the jeans on she’d left lying on the floor when she went to bed only hours earlier. They dragged the cold up her legs and over her butt as she gritted her teeth and shivered. She stuffed her long underwear shirt down in them to get something warm against her stomach again. Her wool socks were already on her feet which was a blessing, and she loaded a cotton turtleneck and then heavy wool sweater on top of it all. Her mate slept through her dressing, since his shifts were midnight and 6:00 AM. She always did the 3:00 AM shift, just that one, but the one the ewes were most fond of employing when it came time to birth their lambs.

The kitchen was a smidgen lighter, as the yard light entered the uncurtained windows but was checked by the coating of ice that encased them from the outside. Lucy next pulled on her quilted coveralls, laced up her snow boots, put a wool toque on her head and finally pulled on her parka. Her last act of dressing was sliding her hands into two sets of mittens – wool inners, leather outers. She took a breath, opened the porch door, and stepped into the porch the way astronauts step into their airlocks, only air was not her problem, cold was.

Sometimes at that hour of the morning she would be treated to the aurora, a waving curtain of brilliant colors in the deep darkness of a subarctic night. This night, however, was just dark and cold. She walked up the driveway, the dry snow squeaking loudly with each step. She went up around the log barn full of month-old lambs as yet unweaned and down a path worn in the grass and dirt from years of taking this same course. 

As she entered the lambing barn, her hand crept up the wall to the light switch overhead. It was utter pitch in that barn, and she didn't take one more step until the light was on. You never knew where a ewe would pick to lamb. As the room brightened, the ewes in their lambing pens, which were against the walls and ringed the room in orderly succession, blinked and squinted until they too adjusted to the light.

Lucy stood scanning the center section where the ewes awaiting birthing had free run in the thick, clean straw. She always left the radio on CBC, the only station available to them other than the local one which had been off for hours, as she felt the voices and music kept the ewes company. Their sheep were used to human contact and appeared to find it a calming and protective influence in their lives, so she thought the radio was good for them. 

As she looked to see if any ewe had lambed or was in the process, she heard the DJ, as part of his late night chatter, talking about the upcoming Challenger shuttle flight later in the morning. He was recounting the number of setbacks this particular launch had experienced so far. She paid it little mind as she heard a ewe in the far corner talking to her as yet unborn lamb, maa-ing out her foreknowledge as to what was about to happen. What it meant to Lucy was she wouldn't be getting back to bed for a while.

She checked to make sure the new born lambs and their mums  in the pens around the wall were fine. She picked up the occasional newborn to snuggle  against her cheek, smelling its fresh soapy scent, and tickled by its tiny lips that keep searching every inch of her face for something that might yield milk. She laughed softly at their determination dear and gentle as it was.

The ewe was now pawing the straw, bunching up a nest that she would soon lie in. Lucy slide down the wall into the soft straw herself and waited.

Once again the music stopped as the DJ offered some further difficulties with the shuttle. He was talking about how cold it was in Florida that morning.

She snorted. “Cold, she said, “What could they possible understand about cold?” She was accustomed to talking out loud as hers was a quiet world with few human interactions across the course of any day. Sometimes she’d treat the sheep as listeners and tell them about what was troubling her, or the jobs she had to get finished that day or ask them about their day, with her filling in possible answers. She loved sheep, their benign, joyful natures, and enjoyed their company. A ewe not ready to lamb, wandered around the room looking for tidbits of scattered alfalfa leaves, and then approached Lucy, moving up close enough to touch nose to nose. Lucy scratched her ears until the ewe decided to trundle on.

The DJ, obviously wanting someone to share this compelling interest he had in space flight, broke through the music again like an earnest newsman. His likely only audience at that hour was possibly six or so truckers on the lonely northern McKenzie Highway and a few shepherds perhaps. He alerted them to recent developments where the Thiokol engineers had informed the shuttle powers-to-be there could be potential problems with the O-rings that sealed the joints of the shuttle’s rocket boosters. They were vulnerable to failure at low temperatures.

Lucy listened a little more carefully for she knew about cold, its insidious nature and its power to ground human beings utterly. The station had picked up a broadcast coming from California. It offered snatches of conversation from various constituencies responsible for this amazing flight machine. She listened not just to their words, but was struck more by what they weren't saying. She lived in a world of frankness, after all the local farmers were in the same business, knew the same problems and didn't miss anything that happened in the community. To people whose fate rests in the hands of seeing things for what they are, she thought her neighbors could do a lot better job getting to the truth than these engineers, managers and NASA.

The ewe had lain down in her bed and was now breaking water. Lucy left the radio program to attend to her. Already two pointed hooves were pushing out. Aah, she thought, looks straightforward. Maybe I’ll get back to bed. But when the lamb didn't make any progress after ten minutes, Lucy washed up, and proceeded to enter the ewe and see what was wrong. 

“Damn,” she said aloud. “Two little beggars are both trying to come at once.” The two legs turned out to be one from each of two lambs. She worked to push one lamb back and find the folded leg of the one she wanted to pull first. It was tedious work. She lay on her belly working one-handed using  her fingers to “see” what it looked like inside. Time was the enemy, much longer and the lambs could get into trouble. At last, she located the buried limb she sought, hooked her index finger into the bend at the knee and eased it out straight. With her outside hand, she gave a soft tug on the two legs and breathed more easily as the lamb crowned. She gave another tug and he slid out and flopped into the straw. She grabbed him quickly and put him under his mother’s nose so she could lick him clean. She was a smart old ewe; she went right for his nostrils to lick out the mucous and let him breathe. Lucy then went back for the second. It started to move before Lucy could  get its leg turned, but the ewe was stretched enough that it came one leg straight, one folded. She cleaned that lamb and then gave him to his mum so she could bond with them both. She let the ewe handle it from there after dipping navels and unplugging her teats. Lucy cleaned the slime off her arms so she could put her parka back on. She was getting cold in this barn heated only by animal body heat.

The radio caught her attention again, this time talking about the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who had trained for a year alongside the astronauts going into space this morning. From 11,500 applicants, they picked her, a dream come true. Lucy leaned against the wall. She had often talked with Ben about what if they weren't farmers. What if they had gone to school and could do something as exciting as fly into space. It wasn't that she was stupid. She was savvy about life. As well, she loved living in the country with the good folks around her and their unencumbered lives. But couldn't there be so much more?

She made sure the two new arrivals had been nursed and were now sleeping. Just as she was leaving, she heard the final decision coming across the air waves. Whatever the seeming problems, the mission was a-go.

What she last remembered thinking as she walked down to the house at 6:00 AM was, don’t mess with the cold. You can’t control it or bend it to your will. It wins; it always wins.

She let her guy sleep in an hour and called him only when the house was warm from the wood cook stove and the room filled with the aroma of frying bacon and fresh coffee. As he washed up in the bathroom, she sat on the edge of the bathtub and shared her night’s education about the launch and the problems it was having. His only comment was, “They should have a few farmers on their payroll. We know how it always cost ya big when you do stupid things. Messing with the cold, that’s just damn dumb.”

They turned on the TV while they ate breakfast to see if CBC was carrying the launch. By some strange bounce they picked up a west coast station carrying it live. As the countdown started, they left the table and stood, each leaning against the opposite door
jamb of the opening into the living room. Having never seen a launch before, they stood awed by the power and magnitude of this grand flying machine. Their amazement lasted seventy-two seconds. One second later, this marvel of mankind exploded in a ball of searing light before forking into a plume of smoke and fire. Lucy’s hand flew to her mouth but didn't keep her, “Oh God,” from sputtering out. Ben straightened up like a bolt and grabbed hold of the jamb. “She-it,” was his quiet response.  In the crowd at Cape Canaveral, Christa’s mother and father, her two children and her husband, watched as Christa became a part of history in a way they never envisioned.

That night on the farm, another dark cold January evening, Ben and Lucy walked arm-in-arm up the driveway to do one last check on the lambing barn before supper. With the soft glow of the barn and the beauty of new life all around them, Ben said to a ewe he was stroking, “Human frailties don’t show up so spectacular in our world, little gal. Seems every year without fail simple things like the cold, the wet, hail or early snow remind us over agin that the Big Shots don’t live on earth. If ya wanna walk with the gods or fly through their sky, you’d do well to remember that.”

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  1. Well done. And sure to bring back memories for all who are old enough to remember.

    1. Thanks, darling. To bad those memories aren't ones of triumph.

  2. Amazing Christina: I received this in my email this morning and really had other things to attend to, but I read the first few lines anyway and got my attention immediately drawn in and ended up reading it with total pleasure right down to the end. You know what did it for me? The mention of the cold blue jeans Lucy pulls up her legs, that coldness of the material, a small detail but it talked to me. Well done!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. As writers, as you well know, this is our legacy - to share meaningful written material. So your enjoyment is equally mine. And you know about cold too? Interesting.

  3. A small but mighty masterpiece for you again! Attention to detail and your depth of lessons of being thankful for what we have...are profound, spell- binding, and hit home, right when they needed to. Thank you!! It never says here Giants are not writers!!!!You are definitely a "Giant."......merri

    1. Always there for you, Merri, even when I don't know it. That's the beauty is it not. Glad to hear from you.Thanks for stopping by.