Human Frailties: A Short Story

On a cold dark morning, the Challenger blasted off into space. Photo: collectSPACE

Did the world really work that way, with life so far down on the list of what matters? A story of life and death.

Millie’s hand reached through the blackness of the bedroom, hit the alarm button after just one buzz and slid off the clock to hang limply over the edge of the bed. She forced her eyes open to see the only thing visible in the room, the clock face indicating 3:00 AM. With consciousness, came the recognition of every ache her body had accumulated this far into the lambing season. She groaned audibly as she dragged herself out from under the covers and sat up with her legs over the edge of the bed she’d crawled into only three hours earlier. The first foot of air above the carpeted floor, where her feet now rested, was the same temperature as the floor in the adjoining kitchen which regularly froze the gallon of milk she often set on it overnight when the fridge was too full. The furnace full on was unable to fend off January cold.

Millie 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 can’t I at least remember to hang them up, for god sakes? she asked yet again. Her wool socks, already on her feet, were a small blessing. To get something warm against her belly, she stuffed her long underwear shirt into her jeans, then loaded a cotton turtleneck and finally a 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 most favored when it came time to birth their lambs.

Christina Carson

She walked into the kitchen made a smidge lighter by the yard light seeping through the uncurtained windows, but dimmed by the coating of ice on the glass panes. Millie unhooked her quilted coveralls from the wooden wall peg in the kitchen and pulled them on, forced her heavily stocking-ed feet in to her snow boots and laced them up, 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, pulled her hood up over her toque and opened the door as she awkwardly stepped onto the porch reminiscent of an astronaut in his bulky suit stepping into an airlock, only air wasn’t her problem, cold was. It hit her like a wall.

Sometimes at that hour, she would be treated to the aurora, a surreal, haunting vision feathering 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 world about her completely silent except for the dry snow squeaking with each step. She continued 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.

When she entered the lambing barn and pulled the door shut behind her, pitch darkness possessed the space, stopping her immediately. The light switch was unusually high up on the wall, and she figured the last owner of this farm was either a retired basketball player or, more likely, that’s where he ran out of electrical wire. Since expectant mothers were loose in the area and could choose anywhere to lamb, Millie never took a next step until the light was on. With the click of the switch, she, as well as the ewes, blinked and squinted until they all adjusted to the brightness. “Ladies, sorry to wake you,” she half spoke, half sang to them, the consummate concierge.

The ewes that had already lambed were confined with their babies in small square pens which ringed the exterior wall in orderly succession, leaving a broad reach of thick straw in the center which she now scanned for any indication that a ewe might be about to lamb. No sheep was restless or pawing up a nest of straw. None had broken water. It looked like a slow night. Music and quiet talking, which played round the clock from a small radio sitting on a wall shelf, started Millie humming. She left it on during lambing season convinced it soothed the sheep at night and reassured them throughout the day. It also boosted her mood, that and the seeming possibility of getting back to bed soon.

It was Millie’s habit before leaving the barn each shift to check all the lambing pens to ensure the newest arrivals were well-tended and thriving. It was never a chore. To her sensitivities, lambs were the sweetest creatures she’d ever encountered. At one pen, she reached down to lift up a day-old lamb, cradling it, brushing her cheek against its wooly softness. Its scent was that of clean soapiness. As its tiny lips smooched her face in search of something that might yield milk, Millie giggled like a young girl. “Precious,” she said as she kissed its tiny black nose and gave it back to its mum, who accepted Millie as part of the flock.

The radio’s music program came to an end as the CBC commentator broke in with, “Ladies and gents, let’s thank Brahms for that bit of musical beauty. If you’re a trucker out there, I hope it hasn’t made you sleepy.” Then he gave the regular drill at the half hour, going through all five time zones and adding a few comments, likely more than anything else, to make him feel as if someone was listening. His best hope was a trucker on the Mackenzie Highway heading to or from the Northwest Territories or perhaps a few other shepherds like Millie.

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 have stirred his curiosity, especially the details of the many setbacks this mission was experiencing. Millie, rarely drawn to the enterprises of the world to the south, stopped to listen. Space travel was more akin to a sci-fi movie for her; the subject so remote from her concerns. But what the young DJ focused on was not so much science but the setbacks, and to that subject she could easily relate. The current dilemma, the commentator informed her, concerned O-rings that could become problematic in the unusual cold forecast for north Florida later that morning. “I wonder what unusual cold looks like in Florida,” she chuckled. “But O-rings, they can be a pain, all right? That damned old John Deere’s hydraulics are forever suffering from leaky O-rings.” Millie often talked aloud as hers was a quiet world with few human interactions across the course of a day. In response to the radio story she said to the nearest ewe, “Buttons, do you have any interest in flying into space? Me neither. I’ve heard it’s even colder out there. Who the heck needs that?”

A sound from across the barn snatched her focus back to shepherding. 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 draws near. This ewe began to moan. Millie immediately put her attention on the ewe and walked unobtrusively across the space between them, coming up behind her. The ewe was leaning against the wall rather than lying down and pushing. In her world of frequent happenstance, Millie accepted two new certainties. She would not be getting back to bed any time soon, and this ewe was in trouble. The young woman stood there 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 Millie and her husband would work together on this sort of situation, but she remembered how tired he looked at supper and decided not to get him up. Sleep deprivation was the state in which they lived during the five months of lambing. Any unexpected sleep you could grab was a gift. Having made that decision, Millie took a big breath, setting her mind to what was ahead of her.

As she walked back across the barn to the supply shelf, 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 40 when I got to the station this evening. Heh, you truckers and farmers out there. What would you give for it to be 30 here this morning?”

Millie, feeling a bit edgy with what was facing her, uncharacteristically joined the DJ with his scoffing. “Cold, what could they possibly understand about cold? It’s insidious, ruthless and defeats the best and worst without prejudice.” Her mind reran the moment cold had taught her that, pared her cockiness down past humility to despair. Since then, she never 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. She removed her parka, washed her hands in the icy water at the spigot, then gathered her supplies and walked back across the barn. The commentator continued relating the debates between NASA officials and the Morton Thiokol engineers, suppliers of the O-rings, catching 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, that’s a big gap,” the DJ said to his silent audience. He continued with the provided text which sank into a more contentious discussion. Issues involving politics, as well as loss of careers and funding fears were laced into every facet of the impending decision.

The young man, a local fellow, saw in this nighthawk DJ position his ticket out of the North. Sometimes he’d weary of talking to his phantom listeners, wondering in those moments whether his life would ever be grander than this. But this night, he had another thought, one that unsettled him, rocking some pillar of decency installed in him as a child. As the issues in the debate kept coming across the fax, the discussions became increasingly absurd to him. He turned to his mike, and speaking to his audience with the candor of a kitchen table get-together, albeit a monologue, he asked almost helplessly, “Is there really any question here as to how to proceed?”

Millie caught his meaning and understood in that moment there were worlds she did not want to know. In the dim corner of the lambing barn at what was now almost 4:00 AM, she answered the commentator, “My god I hope not.”

Millie felt a strange sensation in her gut as she paused momentarily 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 turned back to the ewe in front of her, placed the supplies where she’d be able to reach them once she had the ewe down and quick as lightning, got a knee against the ewe’s chest leaving her left hand free to grab its tail. Even as distressed as the sheep was, the ewe’s survival instinct sent her lurching forward, but Millie’s knee dug into her chest while her right hand secured a hold under the ewe’s jaw. Pushing the ewe backward over her own leg, Millie sat the ewe on her bum and gently rolled her onto her side. As the air huffed out of her various orifices, Millie caught a whiff of something foul. She placed her hand just inside the opening to the birth canal. It was dry and scolding hot. The ewe had broken water long before, but no lamb had been born. Millie sighed and slowly shook her head knowingly. She opened the tube of lubricant she’d brought and began to grease her left arm and hand, her right one still beneath the ewe’s jaw to keep her from bolting up and running off. Splayed out across the ewe, her chest half on the sheep and half in the straw, her world grounding her in the here-and-now, she dared let herself imagine that people actually make life-and-death decisions based on the considerations she’d heard.

But no sooner had she slid her hand into the birth canal, her focus switched to her own troubles. When she located the lamb, and gave its leg a slight tug to get it moving, the leg pulled away from the body. The lamb had been dead for a while. What would have been a slow but doable delivery were it alive had now become a crusade to save the ewe’s life.

For thirty minutes, Millie worked with a focus indicative of the stakes involved. When she was certain she had left nothing behind, she reentered the ewe one final time to drop two large boluses of sulfa in the uterus along with a silent prayer. The young sheep, no doubt in tremendous pain, lay flat, her head outstretched on the straw between her extended front legs, the characteristic position of dying. Her eyes were closed and her breath shallow and blistering hot. “Heh, sweet mama, I’m pulling for you,” she whispered in the ewe’s ear.

She gathered up her unused supplies and wrapped the pieces of decayed lamb in a plastic bag. Walking back to the far end of the barn, she replaced the supplies on the shelf. She then 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, leaned against the wall and allowed herself to slide down it into the deeply bedded straw. She was exhausted. The cold took advantage and seeped in.

The radio had been silent as if it had gone off the air. Then the commentator spoke with no forewarning. Millie lurched, startled. 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 she’s accompanying into space. She was selected from 11,500 applicants; a dream come true.” Awe colored the DJ’s reporting on this woman. It was tinged unmistakably with longing. “The powers to be are still debating about whether this mission is a-go. They say it’s sunny in Florida but cold.”

The music returned and Millie rocked in time, pondering. I should get up and go down to the house, perhaps catch another hour of sleep, she considered, but what to do about the ewe? She blinked her sleepy eyes, then stretched them open using her entire face. She laughed at what that likely looked like, but in that tensionless moment, the answer blasted into her mind. She pushed herself up, took her parka back off and walked over to the orphan pen, the upshot of ewes who died giving birth or ones that birthed more lambs than they could feed. 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 to reduce her load. Each day he got increasingly dull and listless, for lambs need maternal connection as surely as milk. Millie had begun to worry he might not make it. He was a sorry little thing, and it shook her up every time she passed that pen and he came running, his big, anxious eyes searching her expectantly. But he, bless him, just might be the answer for them both if he’d cooperate.

He was already too big, too active and too vocal to fool most ewes into thinking he was a new born. Ewes knew their own. Nor could Millie scent him with the ewe’s birth fluids as they were long gone, but she had to do something.

She worked fast, scooping the little guy out of his pen and wetting him down a bit to mimic newborn wetness. He squalled with the shock of cold water, but she had to move quickly. Time was not on her side. She talked to him as if he were a wee child, explaining to him that this might be the day he’d been waiting for. Tying his feet together hurriedly to keep him temporarily immobile, she carried the lamb across the barn to what she hoped would prove to be his new mama. It was tough to tell if the ewe was still alive, but determined, Millie lay her little friend right under the ewe’s nose. He immediately began to flop about like a freshly landed fish and maa loudly. “You’re not helping,” Millie said through her teeth. Life was hanging in the balance on both ends of the scale.

Millie stood barely breathing. “Come, on, come on, come on,” was her urgent plea to the little one to behave more like a newborn. She blinked her tired eyes, now less dependable than several hours ago. Did she see what she thought she saw? She focused more keenly. It happened again. This time she was sure of it. The ewe, still not moving, her eyes still shut tight took a lick of the lamb, almost as if it was merely reflex. But then came another lick. All went quiet. Millie had stopped breathing, enthralled by what appeared to be happening. This ewe was virtually returning from the dead. As if the lamb recalled that licked feeling or knew 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. In his frantic struggles, he kicked the ewe in her nose, and her eyes blinked open. At that moment, 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, hurting and exhausted as she was, she hoisted herself up to nurse her new baby.

Millie moved back away and leaned against the wall, humbled by the wonder of this moment. What saved them? she wondered. She was all too aware of how easily life and death could change places, though she was rarely certain why. She knew only that calling them accidents was the least likely explanation. In her experience, life wasn’t that haphazard. It was now 5:30 AM. Fatigue and cold owned her.

The commentator stopped the music to announce the Challenger mission was a-go. The launch was scheduled for 11:30 EDT, 9:30 AM for Millie. She penned up the new family, gave the ewe water and hay and winked at the now dozy lamb, his belly bulging. As she left the barn and stepped into the deep morning cold, she thought back to the debating officials. Did the world really work that way, with life so far down on the list of what matters?

Ben had gotten up and seeing she wasn’t there, figured she had an arrival in the lambing barn. He lit the wood cook 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 success with the ewe and her night’s education about the launch and the problems it was having. They rarely listened to the news from what they referred to as the “outside world” as its concerns seemed far removed from theirs. Unlike her though, Ben had been “out there.” He had left for several years when he chose to serve in the military, stationed with 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 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 Millie. She never questioned him. She knew she wouldn’t understand anyway. She loved him, just that, and that was sufficient. As she related all that she had learned during the night, what stunned her, was an all too familiar tale to him. She looked at him quizzically, unsure of what his non-responsiveness meant. He had 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, Millie fried up some bacon and eggs. By 9:20, the TV on, rather than sit in living room, they stood at the opening into it, almost like they needed to be invited to see this historic event. As the countdown started, they each leaned against the opposite door jamb of the opening, expectant. 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, 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%.”

Millie 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. At 9:39 AM their time, the 73rd second, this marvel of mankind exploded into a ball of searing light and flame before forking into two plumes of thick, dense, white smoke, which for all the world, looked like puffy summer clouds. Millie’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 all he said. 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, Millie 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. Millie folded her arms and leaned against the wall, reflecting on this strange day. One decision saved two sheep. Another decision killed seven people. In her heart, she held the grief of seven families mourning their loss. Had her plan not worked, she would have done the same for the brave little ewe and a lamb that would have surely followed. Hers was a practical world, flexible in some ways, rock solid in others. There was life and death, rain and drought, plenty and lack, work and ease. She had learned acceptance early on, and her comfort came from that. She was not asked to judge or blame. As innocent and unworldly as her view might seem to outsiders, what had happened this day was simple to explain. People, who wanted to be fooled, would be, and cold was always waiting for such opportunities.

Christina Carson is the author of Dying to Know. Please click HERE to purchase a copy.

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  • Christina Carson

    Thanks for posting this one, Caleb. It’s a favorite.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Christina: It captures the irony of our existence. A joy for every sorrow.

      • Christina Carson

        Beautifully said.

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