The nurse scratched at her worn knuckles. They carried the remainder of the coal dust she had been dabbing on the incisions she’d made on and inside her patient, and it coated her fingertips, leaving a black and irridescent stain over the backs of her hands which now swung crookedly at her sides. “There, there'”, she muttered. “There, there”. A deeply gutteral snarl was emitted from the misshapen form on the ground. Pregnancy within the royal household, way up here in the north, was never an attractive or miraculous process. The ceilings were slick and hanging with the condensation of burnt seal fat, the cadence of winter with its blood and sunless skies were an infection which couldn’t help but crawl its way between the cracks in the blubberlined window frames, and the pulsating belly which carried an heir seemed not so much a symbol of life but a reminder of the inevitability of the struggle to maintain it. Little did all three of them know that a story was approaching fast, pulled by dogs and heralded by a growing fervour amongst the people of the settlement. Still, within this room, a nightmare of its own was unfurling between clawmarked thighs and coalblackened knuckles. The room continued to grimly sweat and gag, and the fires which had burned for hours were reaching their sad zenith as they spat towards their end. The nurse clapped her hands above the hearth, and thousands upon thousands of carbon granules fell to join their source, or ignited for a moment in the heat which still hovered above the embers, falling away, or upwards, or nowhere. Exhausted and resigned, she released a rattling sigh as her knees crackled and rustled with her squatting.
It had been a long night, the reeking miasma of burning skin and heather was aching her lungs and her joints were dull and throbbing rhythmically with her old heart. She needed to lie down and continue her efforts in a few hours, of this there was little question, and the stool which numbed her hind quarters groaned in agreement. The patient continued to lie on the piled and matted pelts, a huge, bloated specimen of a woman, belly creaking and undulating on the ground, the imprints of tiny hands and feet within clearly visible, punching and stretching beneath the taut drumskin of a vast stomach. The woman was barely human in this state; she barked and groaned and flopped vastly across the floor, amniotic fluids and blood coagulating on her thighs. A child was coming, and all the nurse could do now was watch as a portent began to spill across the floor.
The last person who watched her feet crunch and snip their way through the compacted snow behind the fjords was a young man, no more than sixteen years old. He sat as he did every day, cross legged and turning the pages of his old books as his goats ignored the ice floes crumbling into the boot-black water. She had stumbled past him, not three days ago, after something had come to an end. He was barely aware of the happenings in the settlement.
They asked much, of course they did. Their questioning was vile and insistent, and overwhelming for a boy of solitary life. He was the last witness, the last contact. He had influence, and the mothers and the sisters of the disappeared hung above him, their insignia waved in front of his face and pockmarked staffs striking the floor at his feet. He told her family, as he told everyone else, that they had shared a glance and pocketful of pleasantries, that he had offered her a cigarette, a end of dry bread, a chance to rest her legs. Her family, as everyone else did, eyed him with a suspectful gaze, willing him to trip on his words, to betray a mundane truth, to confess. They hauled him before the oldest members of the community, a triad of weary eyes set deep and uncomfortably in weary faces, casked in social formalydehyde and horsehair, and these aged matriarchs of the town asked him again. What had he revealed? Why did the girl walk beyond the edges of what she knew and into the plains, to be taken by the cold?
A search party was sent out, with their lamps and what remained of the dogs of the previous year. They stood at the borders and called her name into the horizons. Up there, you could barely see the treeline, if there was one at all. Up there, men had lost their sight, and much more. The gathering of the strongest couldn’t bring themselves the cross the lines in the snow, not even now, after all this time.
He told them again, and again. He had tried to converse, to be joined in his thoughts, and he himself knew little about what lay beyond the harsh uplights of the whitened flatlands, only the stories of the times before, those which they all knew. At the mention of this, more than a few glances were thrown towards the longhouse, where it was known a birthing was taking place. At the mention of this, more than a few eyes were cast down to feet.
He was a simple boy, a keeper of emaciated livestock and a broken sled. His book, which was tied to his wrists by a long leather cord, was something passed down from forefathers, a relic of a forgotten time. He couldn’t read the myriad symbols, the writing, any more than anyone else could. The book was irrelevant, he said. She didn’t even see it, or ask about it. She just kept walking north. He mentioned this over and over again, until it became certain they would take the bound piles of foxmarked papers from him. It had happened before, and in his father’s time, he was told, but he held it to his rackety chest and passed his thumbs between the pages. He took some comfort in their uniformity. Nothing else here was constant – each autumn the land and all in it was carved into a form of icy stasis, and each spring it was moulded through watery attrition into new shapes, for a few short months of glaring, unending daylight. Glacially, the landscape never stopped creeping south.
A decision was quickly made, and the girl was not yet found. In the distance, a moan erupted from behind a door, and someone thought they heard a baby cry.
They say he pleaded his innocence throughout the excruciating length of the ordeals, and they say he looked into the windtorn faces of the mothers without even flinching. They say he would have passed all the trials an innocent man, were it not for the fact he confessed to being the last man to see her. They say he stopped speaking, just before the end, and sat cross legged in the snow as they fell on him, a tribe of people seeking an angry omen. They say they couldn’t prize the book from his frozen fingers, even long after most of the congregation had forgotten why they were there. They say that when it was over, there was nothing left of him. They say it soon became obvious that this was the third portent, with no doubt in anyones mind. They say it had all already begun.
The nurse patted the remaining coaldust from her hands, sighed, and began to dig into the snow. She dug for quite some time. Spring was on its way.