1: Thank God for the Fish

As I was writing Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, several pieces that I had written as fictionalized accounts based on historical facts did not find their way into the final manuscript and I now publish them on this web site as a mini-series sequel.

… 1881…the assault continues. Now the haylands are under water. It is five years since he had arrived in this land, to this island, to a new beginning. Or is this the beginning of the end? Alone together, Sigurdur and his cow stubbornly struggle on….

His feet are wet and cold from the first steps into the soggy field. A curtain of grey clouds hangs over the lake, intercepted on the horizon by a narrow band of dawn widening out to the south. The wind is stiffening and shifting, turning splashes of white on the lake into a tumbling snowy blanket. They’re in for another blow from the northwest, and more rain. Will this weather never turn?

The baying of the cow grows louder as he walks. Sigurdur gets precious few hours warm in bed, but he can’t ignore a cow in trouble. Without that cow, who knows how close to the edge they’d be. He and Helgi had struggled to get the cow with them to the island when they arrived. Helgi should be fighting through this damn swamp. Where in Hell is he?

He stops just before stepping into a pool of water in the low light. Overnight, the lake’s swollen waters spilled over the banks and turned this low-lying pasture into an inland lake. He walks around to the end, where there’s a little white orb bobbing at the edge of the mud. He bends and picks it up, but it falls apart in his hand, soaked and rotten. Even the potatoes have drowned.

There’d been a lot of rain the past couple springs. This wasn’t the first flood to hit the settlement, but it was the worst he’d seen in his six years on the island. The lake had covered almost all the haylands, and there was next to nothing for the handful of cows and oxen to graze on. Now, with the water getting worse, it looked like soon there may be no salvageable hay at all.

Thank God for the fish.

The constant wet almost makes him long for the other seasons, but he soon thinks better of it. There aren’t any good seasons here. He remembers struggling with his young son Stefan through snow waist deep to find wood to burn in the shack they called home that first winter. With the heat of the summer only came more rains, and then mosquitoes, creatures he’s thankful the devil never sent to Iceland.

He looks over to the small sailboat he and Helgi built together. They pulled it over the bank into the field the evening before to protect it from the waves battering the shoreline. Now it’s almost floating again. They need to prepare today, and leave on the boat in the morning to try to find work in the new sawmill in Selkirk. There is no choice.

He comes over a ridge and sees the cow covered in mud. He might have missed her had it not been for her struggling. Her legs have sunk too deep to free herself. She’s on her side and barely has the strength to keep her head out of the muddy water. There’s no way of knowing how long she’s been there, but she looks like she doesn’t have much struggle left in her.

He gets as close as he can without risking a broken leg. He wraps his arms around her neck and gives a tentative pull, but she slips away. He tightens his grip, and pulls. She’s not moving. Another pull. Nothing. Come on! He tries again, and just as she starts to shift, he loses hold and tumbles backward, arms flailing, and thumps down on his back in the mud, panting. The cow continues stretching her head up, her neck tense. Sigurdur’s impressed by her resolve. “You don’t give up, do you girl?” he mutters. “Damn stubborn animal.”

Lying in the cold mud, he looks around at what his life has become in this new land. He gazes up to the log shack, where his family is getting the rest they’ll need for another long day. He hopes their empty bellies don’t wake them too soon. They’re all hungry for something other than fish.

All but five of the other families have left the island. Others have died of smallpox, whole families wiped out. Has he doomed his wife and boys to a future even bleaker than they left behind? Whether he was a dreamer, or just bull-headed, there they are. Even if he wanted to return they didn’t have the means to do so. It was his decision to bring them to Canada. Family and friends in Iceland warned him not to go, said he’d end up starving them all, but he held firm. He couldn’t bear the thought that his boys wouldn’t grow up independent, their own masters.

Sigurdur’s voice bellows out across the soaked field, joining the incessant baying. The startled cow falls silent. He imagines how he must look lying in the mud, wonders what God must think looking down upon him … Damn stubborn animal! On a different day he might have chuckled.

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