When going about her business alone at home, a sudden burst of warm fluid trickled down the inside of Astrid’s legs. She gasped, then hovered in a state of suspension, wondering if her bladder had relieved itself of its own accord. Without the aid of a mirror, she had great trouble seeing beyond the hemisphere of her bump, but in rummaging about in her underwear her hand met with the severest damp, though no smell of urine accompanied it. Drawing out her hand, she saw a sort of syrup clinging to her fingers; a mucus that, under the candlelight, seemed brown, red, and silvery all at once. And she knew that this, the harbinger of motherhood, the breaking of her water, announced the beginning of a journey of extreme and inescapable torment: the baby was coming!
“Something’s not right,” she said, in a faraway voice. “I can’t be going into labour…Only seven months have passed. It’s too soon.” But a contraction of her womb made it known to her that her time had come.
Her cries for help went unanswered, for strangers seldom wander the Arctic for leisure, least of all in the dead of night. It was more likely for her cries to disturb the ears of nearby polar bears than to alert the faraway societies of man.
“Thorsten, where are you?” she called, stumbling in no purposeful direction and not allowing her hand to part with the underside of her tummy. A temporary dizziness robbed her of her senses, the like of which is incurred when standing sharply to attention; the room seemed to roll into a brown and yellow blur. She pressed her other hand to her temple and gradually the interior of the cabin came back into focus. The timber web of struts and beams that stanchioned the roof was scarred with Viking knotwork; painted shields decked out every wall—blue, black, and blood-red; every chair and stool was festooned with pelts; the candles billowed and their serpentine vapours filled the air; the narwhal tusk affixed to the chimney breast appeared like a great ivory javelin; and the scant light from the fire below was in danger of imminent expiry.
Beside the fireplace stood a basket of pokers and shovels, out of which Astrid snatched a pair of tongs. With them, she stole a chunk of kindling from the heart of the fire. Then, she took an oil lantern from the mantelpiece and, having unfastened its window, passed the flaming tinder over the whale blubber inside, transferring to it a blaze of its own. She clasped the lantern window shut and returned the tongs, and then another contraction gripped her womb. Reaching out blindly, she leant against a timber stanchion while her face wrung into a feverish scrunch. When the wave of torment passed, she flung on her furs and scrambled to the cabin door with the burning oil lantern in hand.
Upon opening the door, a blast of wind almost ripped it from its heavy hinges, causing the cabin’s timber frame to judder to its core. Baubles of snow sought refuge inside, and there they melted away into the silver strands of reindeer hide that furnished the floors. Astrid held her balance at the porch and squinted as the dew in her eyelashes crystallised. Still no sign of Thorsten. Assuming now the gravest of circumstances, her thoughts turned to polar bears: was that the howling of the wind or of hungry hunters?
“Don’t be late, Thor. Please, please, please; not tonight.”
She set the oil lantern upon a wrought iron hook, and there, in a riotous swing, did it serve as a beacon to steer Thorsten home against the blackness of the polar night. Then, grasping the door handle with both hands, she hauled the door back into its frame against the rebellious gale.
The outside world sealed off, Astrid waddled in helpless apprehension throughout the cabin. It was a womb itself, the cabin. And looking down at her bump, she supposed it might be a good thing if her baby stayed inside her forever. Sheltered and isolated, yes, but so too from the dangers of a forbidding modern world.
To occupy her mind, she set about adding more coal to the hearths and fire baskets. Every spare candle and oil lantern was lit, not for light, but for the meagre agglomeration of their heat. And as she went about her domestic errands, the intermittent twinges pulverised her abdomen.
She sank into a tanned-leather armchair and found herself consumed with regret. Her lust to escape the city and be far removed from people had seemed romantic. A clean break from the everyday swooning over of modern arrangements; liberation from the bonds of the man-made; disconnection from the talons of technology; separation from the obsessive collecting of material trappings. The modern home had turned museum, brimming with ornaments and artefacts that had no practical use other than to massage the pride of their curators. They thought of themselves as homeowners, but they realised not that it was their homes and possessions which possessed them. Yet, in her current state, Astrid conceded her old life wasn’t all that bad when compared to living here. Svalbard: that which had given her a peaceful retreat had also become a hostile place to give birth. Not for over three months had they felt the warmth of daylight grace their pallid cheeks.
“I’m not ready. Just contractions. They’ll pass—”
The spasms of her womb returned, each time more powerful, and the rise and fall of her breast underwent a drastic rhythm.
“Why did we choose this life for you?” she said, looking down at her dome and letting slip a depressing half laugh, half cry. “To be foragers—hah; this was such a stupid fad.”
The foragers had no device with which to call for help. No connections of any sort. No vehicle for transport. Not even a device to tell the time. If it didn’t exist a thousand years ago, it was forbidden. Even visiting the hospital, they agreed, was a breach of their ways; no health scans of the baby were ever conducted; no clinicians were ever consulted; no medication was ever consumed; intervention was never condoned. Not even after her first miscarriage. There’d been excessive bleeding. A shedding of her insides. A passing of foetal tissue. She remembered it now: its searching black bug-eyes gave it the semblance of—she hated herself for thinking it—a pale alien. And she couldn’t shake this haunting image of a baby stillborn—or, at best, crippled.
Tears of candle wax spilt in great quantities. Her hands shook with terror. To steady them, she took up a thick plait of blonde hair in her mouth and trimmed the ends incessantly.
Unable to turn her thoughts away from miscarriage, her eyes became suffused with tears. Two months premature—something had to be wrong. She blamed herself. This could only be the consequence of their migrating to this unrelenting clime. And now it was a stretch beyond her imagination to envisage a life in which she held a baby, believing herself to be destined to spend the rest of her life with faulty female faculties, without a child.
A pang of cramp punished her as though in retaliation for her rueful thoughts. But each one, uncomfortable as it was, offered hope. A signal from her bump: here I come, Mamma. In response, she massaged the underside of her belly, straightened her back, and dabbed at her runny pink nose.
“We’re going to fight our way through this, bump.” The torturous contractions doubled in frequency and intensity.
To stymy the pain, she dug her fingers into her palms, her nails carving divots into her skin. She sucked air through her teeth, regulating her intake. Upon relaxing, she felt the baby’s position change and a new throbbing at her cervix.
“Thorsten—agh! I can’t be doing this. Not on my own.” But to wait any longer was a danger to the baby.
In haste, she completed a lap of the room, collecting the necessary articles for the delivery. She undressed the throne-like chairs of their thick pelts and gathered pillows stuffed with eiderdown; with these, she arranged a couch by the fire. Stopping at a cask of mead, she deliberated, though not for long. If she had to do this alone, without painkillers (forbidden), then being sober was an agonising thought. So she supped from the mead cask, and the draught became a burning ravine throughout her insides. Then she stripped off her trousers, stockings, and underwear. All save her frilly socks were removed from her lower half, but the hairs of her legs offered some relief to the wintry air. (The common obsession with removing hair in more southerly countries was a practice mocked by foragers of the Arctic, where every additional strand was regarded as a tally of one’s beauty.)
At last, she lay in the mound of furs by the fire. Upon settling, she was overcome with the maternal urge to push. But pushing at this stage was a terrible idea, for both her bowels and bladder threatened the foulest mutiny. There was to be no getting comfortable, and at each successive contraction she shook with more feverous fervour, while the network of stretch marks on her belly flared up like purple bolts of lightning.
The clouds were pregnant with snow, and as the upside-down blizzard beat on, Thorsten trudged up the twisting vale, leaning his seven-foot frame into it to keep himself from being blown over, the frost crunching underneath his ragged wet boots as he went. He towed his sled behind, but it hauled no cargo: no winter’s catch, only the dead weight of tackle. He’d gone to great pains that day, having tracked reindeer, hunted ptarmigan, stalked fox, and fished at the shore. Spear, trap, harpoon, net; none had brought any yield.
Two days had passed since any proper meal, but the thoughts of disappointing Astrid eroded his insides more thoroughly. She was losing weight, not gaining like she was supposed to during pregnancy. To compensate, she preserved her energy by reducing her activities to little more than a cycle of sitting and thinking—and overthinking. Her worst fears he shared; but if, as a result of malnutrition, their baby should be born with an unfortunate condition and into a life of uncommon struggle, the blame would be on him for his failure to provide.
He dropped to his knees and punched great holes in the snow with his cubic fists, leaving beaten-up patches of ebony slush. He roared, but the wind deemed his voice irrelevant. Angry at the blizzard, he took up his spear in both hands. Then, holding it high, he drove it into the ground, the shaft puncturing the frost—and something soft beneath. A piercing squeak cut through the wind at the point of the spear’s entry.
With difficulty, he unstuck the spear from the ground, and when he brought it up for observation, he saw a vole writhing on its point. He slapped his chest and laughed. This was a fat one, worthy of roasting. In fact, it was the fattest he’d ever seen. In the frozen air, she gave her last breath, curled up, and turned rock solid. But then a savage thought occurred to him, and seconds later he himself froze over…This swollen-bellied vole looked to be carrying younglings of her own.
He flung his spear as though there was a real possibility of contracting some unfathomable bad luck through his kill which he might pass on to Astrid and their baby. Then he turned away and vomited the watery contents of his stomach. Not even in their hungriest hour would they—could they—dine on a skewered mother and baby, no matter what the creature.
“Still,” he said, dragging his sled away and looking over his shoulder as though looking through a window into his past, “the dangers of this place pale when compared to those we fled.”
As he waded on through the snow, he came to the latter part of his journey. He longed now for warm dry clothes, a pair of toasted socks, and a mug of strong mead. But as his excitement grew, so did his guilt. In a state of indecision, he sped up, only to slow down again thereafter. Then, at the sudden suspension of the weather, he halted in his tracks.
The blizzard parting and the wind dying, Thorsten lowered his scarf and rolled back his wet hood. He swept his long ginger forelocks away from his brow and brushed away the ice which clung to his dense beard. Belts of infinite stars glimmered as though a sequinned mantle had been drawn across the polar sky. Ribbons of emerald and ruby rippled to and fro—the magic of the Northern Lights. He could’ve passed an hour or two watching their undulations. He contemplated it, but in noting the position of the constellations he saw it was already getting late, so on he pressed.
A short while later, he saw it: an orange beacon in a pendulous swing. At such a distance, their well-camouflaged longhouse, Thrudheim, under its dusting of white icing, seemed a gingerbread house. To look at only made him hungrier.
After he’d tied his sled to the coal shed, he clambered up the porch one step at a time, ducking to avoid the hungry fangs of icicles. Here at the door, slouching with his hands in his pockets, his grass-green eyes dropped to the doormat and he let slip a pitiable sigh. When looking up again, he feigned his happiest whistle and went inside.
Excerpted from Homo Nova and the House of Abraham by Tommy Crabtree Copyright © 2021 by Tommy Crabtree. Excerpted by permission of Fireside Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.