Short Story - Human Frailties

Her hand reached through the blackness of the bedroom, hit the alarm button after just one buzz and wearily slid back off the clock to hang limply over the edge of the bed. Bette forced her eyes open to see the only thing visible in the room, the clock face indicating 3:00 AM. She sighed, dragged her aching body out from under the covers and sat up with her legs over the edge of the bed she’d entered only three hours earlier. The first foot of air above the carpeted floor, which her feet now occupied, was the same temperature as that in the adjoining kitchen which regularly froze the gallon of milk she often set out over night when the fridge was too full. The furnace was willing but unable to fend off January cold.

Bette remembered this as she gathered her jeans from the floor and pulled them up over her legs and butt, gritting her teeth and shivering. Why couldn’t I at least remember to hang them up? 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.

She walked out into the kitchen which was a smidgen lighter. The yard light seeped through the uncurtained windows, having first been reduced by the coating of ice that encased them from the outside. Bette unhooked her quilted coveralls from the wood wall peg in the kitchen and pulled them on, 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, she would be treated to the aurora, a surreal vision feathered across the sky—glowing lights of various colors waving curtain-like 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 not yet weaned and down a path worn in the grass and dirt from years of taking this same course. It now cradled snow. As she entered the lambing barn, her hand crept up the wall to the light switch overhead. It was utter pitch in the barn, and she never took a step further than the door until the light was on. Expectant mothers were loose and could choose anywhere to lamb. She didn’t need to start her shift by tripping over one. The ewes that had lambed already were in small, square pens with their babies. The pens were against the outer walls and ringed the room in orderly succession. When Bette threw the switch, she and all the ewes blinked and squinted until they adjusted to the brightness.

Bette stood scanning the center section to search for any indication that a ewe might be about to lamb, but nobody was pawing up a nest of straw, or panting or had broken water. Maybe this would be one night she’d get back to bed quickly. A small radio sat on the shelf which also held lambing supplies. Bette left the radio on all the time. At this hour, only CBC was broadcasting. The local station had been off for hours. Their sheep were accustomed to human contact, and Bette was convinced the soft night music and quiet talking during the day made them feel more secure.
She decided to check all the lambing pens before leaving just to insure the newest arrivals were well fed and comfortable. She stopped at one pen, unable to resist a new baby, just a day old.  She picked up the dear creature and held it out to admire it. To Bette’s sensitivities, lambs were the sweetest creatures she’d ever encountered. She snuggled this one against her cheek, smelling its fresh soapy scent, and giggled like a young girl as its tiny lips smooched her face, in search of something that might yield milk. “God, you’re cute,” she said as she kissed its tiny pink nose and gave it back to its mum, who, being an experienced ewe, was unruffled by her lamb’s momentary disappearance.

The radio’s music program came to an end as the commentator broke in with the name of the last piece playing as well as its composer. Then he gave the regular drill at the half hour, going through all five time zones and adding a few words, more than anything else, to make him feel like there was someone out there. His best hope was a few truckers on the Mackenzie Highway heading to or from the Northwest Territories and perhaps a few other shepherds like Bette. Though he didn’t normally do news at the half hour, the commentator began talking about the upcoming Challenger shuttle mission scheduled for later in the morning. The subject appeared to be something that fascinated him, and what he went on about were the many setbacks this mission had experienced. Bette stopped to listen. Space travel was more akin to a sci-fi movie for her, the subject so remote from her world, but setbacks, those she could relate to easily. The current problem, the commentator informed her concerned O rings that could become problematic in the unusual cold that had been forecast for north Florida on launch day. “I wonder what unusual cold looks like in Florida,” she chuckled. “But O rings, they can be a pain, can’t they? That damned old John Deere’s hydraulics are forever suffering from leaky O rings.” Bette often talked aloud 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.

A sound from across the barn broke her focus on the radio story. It came from a young ewe. This would be her first time to lamb. But it wasn’t the ordinary maa sound ewes made when “talking” to their yet unborn lambs as their time comes near. This ewe started to moan. Bette immediately put her attention on the ewe and walked quietly across the space between them, coming up behind her. The ewe was leaning against the wall rather than lying down and pushing. The scene assured Bette of two certainties. This ewe was in trouble; and she would not be getting back to bed any time soon. Bette stood their mentally checking off what she might need to handle what she suspected was the problem. First, she’d have to get the ewe down, and then be able to keep her down. Sometimes Bette and her husband would work together on this sort of situation, but she remembered how tired he looked at supper and decided not to go get him. Sleep deprivation was the state in which they lived during the five months of lambing. Any unexpected sleep you could grab was a gift. Bette took a big breath, set her mind to what was ahead of her and mentally went through a checklist.

As she walked back across the barn to get what she needed, the commentator stopped the music once again, this time to joke about NASA’s concern with the cold that morning at Cape Canaveral. “Thirty degrees Fahrenheit, eh? Wow that’s chilly. It was minus 35 when I got up this morning. Heh, you truckers and farmers out there. What would you give for it to be 30 here this morning when you got up?” 

Bette, feeling a bit edgy with what was facing her, joined in the scoffing. “Cold, what could they possibly understand about cold? It’s insidious, ruthless and defeats the best and worst without prejudice.” She had never lived anywhere else. Still she didn’t let her guard down. She had seen cold kill people in ways those ignorant of its power would never suspect.
She shook her head to clear it and get on point, gathering her supplies and walking back across the barn. The commentator continued his story, now relating the discussions between NASA officials and the Morton Thiokol engineers supplying the rings. The young DJ caught her attention once again. She stopped mid-way to listen. He related that fifty degrees was the coldest condition in which the rings had ever been employed. “Man, twenty degrees is a big gap,” he said to the air space in front of him. He continued on with the text he had picked up from some other broadcast source, the gist of which carried the discussion from the purely technical to the more entangled company and agency politics. Career concerns, funding fears and responsibility issues were woven in between every line of the debate.

The young man, a local fellow, saw in this radio station position as nighthawk his ticket out of the North. But sometimes he’d weary when talking to listening audiences of ten people, wondering in those long unresponsive stretches whether his life would ever be grander than this. Tonight, however, his thoughts went a different direction, one that unsettled him more. In fact, they rocked some pillar of decency within him as the debate, which kept coming across the fax line, sounded increasingly absurd. He turned to his mike and beseeched whoever was out there, “Is there really any question as to what should be done here?”
 Bette had been only half listening to much of what the DJ rattled on about. But when she heard the distress in the DJ’s voice, she stopped and put it all together. Hadn’t she too, on days of back-breaking labor or nights of endless fatigue, questioned whether there weren’t better places to live and more gratifying work?  But what she had never imagined was there might be jobs like these engineers and scientists had which would cause people to value human life so little. In the dim corner of the lambing barn at what was now almost 4:00 AM, she responded to the commentator. “My god I hope not.”

Bette waited to see if the commentator had anything further to say, but the barn remained silent except for the crunch of feeding ewes and an occasional grunt from a sleeping one.
She returned to the troubled ewe and placed the supplies where she’d be able to reach them once she had the ewe down, Then, quick as lightning, she got a knee against the ewe’s chest as her hand grabbed its tail. Even as sick as she was, the ewe’s survival instinct sent her lurching forward, but Bette’s knee dug into her chest until she grabbed a handhold under its chin. Pushing the ewe backward over her own leg, Bette sat the ewe on her bum and gently rolled her onto her side. As the air huffed out of her various orifices, Bette caught a whiff of something very foul. Splayed out across the ewe in this manner, Bette’s chest was half on the sheep and half in the straw with her legs out behind her. Even in the midst of all she was doing, she couldn’t get the DJ’s question out of her mind. But flattened out against the ewe as she was, she felt grounded enough in the here-and-now to dare to imagine that people actually do weigh human life against commercial considerations. She whispered to the ewe, “I won’t do that to you, lass.” The ewe’s ear twitched as Bette’s breathe blew across it.
To asses just how bad things were, Bette placed her recently cleaned hand just inside the opening to the birth canal. It was bone-dry and scolding hot. The ewe had broken water long before, but no lamb had been born.

Bette sighed and slowly shook her head side-to-side. Still lying on the ewe to hold her down, she opened the tube of lubricant she’d brought and began to grease her left arm and hand. The ewe had stopped struggling and lay their grinding her teeth.  As Bette slid her hand into the canal, she sensed the miserable job ahead of her. Moving anything in or out was going to be like hauling a brick over parched sand. When she finally located the lamb and gave its leg a slight tug to get it moving, all she ended up with in her hand was the leg, the lamb had been dead for a while. This was going to be wretched. If she wanted to give this young ewe any chance for survival, she could not leave any bits of this long- dead lamb inside her. Thirty minutes later, Bette had taken out the last bit of carcass from the womb. She returned once more to drop two large boluses of sulfa in the uterus along with a silent prayer. The young sheep had rolled over onto her stomach lying flat out, her chin on the straw between her extended front legs, the characteristic position of dying. Her eyes were closed and her breath shallow and hot as a furnace.

Bette gathered up all that remained after the delivery and wrapped the pieces of lamb in a plastic bag. She walked back to the far end of the barn near the radio, to return the unused supplies. She washed her arm and hand off in the ice cold barn water, wiped it dry and pull her three different sleeves down to cover it. She put her parka back on which she had to remove to deliver the lamb. Exhaustion made itself felt in every part of her body as she slid down the wall into a pile of clean straw and felt the cold begin to seep in.

The radio had been silent for a while, as if it had gone off the air. When the commentator came back suddenly, without announcement, she jumped. He sounded hoarse, and he snuffled back snot against all broadcast etiquette, she imagined. As if he was completing a thought, he said, “This mission’s payload includes a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who has trained for a year alongside the astronauts going into space with her this morning. She has been selected from 11,500 applicants, a dream come true for her. The powers to be are still debating about whether this mission is a-go. They say it’s sunny in Florida but cold.
Music returned to the radio, and Bette rocked slightly to its rhythm, thinking. She should get up and go down to the house, perhaps catch another hour of sleep, but she couldn’t get her mind off the young ewe. She blinked her sleepy eyes and then stretched them open and thought, I’ve got it. It just might work. She pushed herself up, took her parka back off and walked over to the orphan pen. One little lamb jumped up and came over maa-ing forlornly, like he always did. He’d been doing that for days since he’d been taken from his mama who delivered more lambs than she could suckle. Each day he got increasingly dull and listless, and she was afraid he might not make it. He was a sorry little thing, and he shook her up every time she passed that pen when he’d come running, his big, dark-brown eyes expectant. But bless him, he might be the answer for them both if he’d just cooperate.

He was already too big, too active and too vocal to fool most ewes into thinking he was a new born. Bette couldn’t scent him with her birth fluids either as they were gone. All that might save him was the fact that the fight was out of her, but maybe not completely so.
Bette worked fast. She scooped the little guy out of his pen and wet him down a bit to approximate a new born. He squalled from the shock of the cold water. She didn’t like it either, but sensed she didn’t have time to go warm it up. Explaining to him that this might be his chance for a mama, she hurried to tie his legs together with twine to keep him temporarily immobile. Then she carried him down the barn to the ewe now sick with pain and infection. She placed him right under her nose, and he immediately began to flop like a freshly landed fish and maa loudly. “You’re not helping,” Bette said through her teeth. Life was hanging in the balance on both ends of the scale.

Bette stood barely breathing. “Come, on, come on, come on,” was her silent plea to the little one. Bette blinked, her tired eyes less dependable than several hours ago. Did she see what she thought she saw? Owl-like she stretched her face to open her eyes fully. She focused in on the ewe’s head. It happened again. This time she was sure of it. The ewe, still not moving, her eyes still shut took a lick of the lamb. Then a second one. All went quiet. As if the lamb recalled that feeling or knew it at some primal level what it meant, he started calling to her. She licked harder and faster, and he fought the ties with all his might.  As her eyes blinked open, he broke free from the restraining twine, jumped up, ran to her side, went down on his knees and bullied his way to a teat on her partially expose udder. With his first suckle, the new mama came back to life. Even as sick and exhausted as she was, she hoisted herself up to nurse her new baby.

Bette moved back away and leaned against the wall, smiling softly. She whispered to herself, “Life, life it is so beautiful – any life.”  She was cold and tired. It was now 5:30 AM. The radio had returned to music a while back, and she let it calm her, enjoying the bliss of this moment which could as easily turned ugly.
The commentator broke into the music to announce that the Challenger mission was a-go. The launch was scheduled for 11:30 EDT, 9:30 AM for Bette. She penned up the new family, gave the ewe water and hay and winked at the now dozy lamb, his belly bulging. As she stepped out of the barn into the deep morning cold, she thought back to the debating officials. Did the world really work that way, even with intelligent, curious people like whom she imagined NASA was full of?

Ben had gotten up and seeing she wasn’t there, figured she had an arrival in the lambing barn. He lit the wood stove to pull the chill off the house and started some coffee. She found him in the shower when she got in and sat down on the toilet seat to catch him up. She shared her night’s education about the launch and the problems it was having. They rarely listened to the news. The “outside world” as they called it seemed so far removed from their subarctic home. Unlike her though, Ben had been “out there.” He had left for several years when he chose to serve in the military. He’d been stationed in peacekeeping forces in Croatia. He aged in his heart through those several years, and the first time she saw him on his return, she walked right past him without recognizing this childhood friend. They began to spend time together. As they got closer, and he was sure she’d never judge him, he gave what was left of his heart to Bette. She never asked. She knew she wouldn’t understand anyway. She loved him, just that, and that was sufficient. As she related all she had learned during the night, what stunned her turned out to be an all too familiar tale to him. She looked at him quizzically, unsure of what his non-responsiveness meant. He turned off the water and stood there naked. His eyes were soft as he looked at her and said, “Babe, if we all had hearts as stout and honest as yours, I wouldn’t feel so ill at ease about how this day might end.”

They held off on breakfast and did chores quickly that morning. Back in the house by 9:00, Bette fried up some bacon and eggs and by 9:20, the TV on, they stood at the opening into the living room almost like they needed to be invited in to see this historic event. As the countdown started, they each leaned against the opposite door jamb of the opening into the living room. Having never seen a launch before, they felt like visitors from another century.

They heard the countdown… “3-2-1 and lift off. Lift off,” the NASA official said. “The 25th Space Shuttle Mission has cleared the tower.” The camera panned to the crowd where Crista McAuliffe’s parents and husband and young children stood with their necks bent back as they peered at the sky. “Good roll program confirmed,” the official continued, “the engines beginning to throttle down, now at 94%.”

Bette and Ben stared at the shuttle rising, each taking it in in their own way. They never shared the thoughts each had during those next 72 seconds. It was like a world they were only visiting, so far removed from their lives and experiences. At 9:39 AM their time, one second later, this marvel of mankind exploded into a ball of searing light and flame before forking into two plumes of thick, dense, white smoke. They looked like puffy summer clouds. Bette’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, Bette walked up the driveway to do one last check in the lambing barn before supper. The ewe looked improved. The lamb, snuggled up against her, lay content. Bette, arms folded, one leg bent back against the wall, stood for a while reflecting on this strange day. One decision saved two sheep. Another decision killed seven people. She knew there were seven families mourning their loss. Had her plan not worked, she would have mourned the loss of a brave little ewe and a lamb that would have followed. Hers was a practical world, however, flexible in some ways, rock solid in others. There was life and death, rain and drought, plenty and lack, work and time for oneself. She had learned acceptance early on. Wasting no time on judgment or blame eased her darker moments. As innocent and unworldly as her view might seem to outsiders, what had happened this day was simple to explain. People were easy to fool, and cold had done that once again.

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