The title ‘Winter sleep’ came from a promotional leaflet of some sort on my desk. I gave it to Rebecca as a prompt when she gave me ‘the Evil Locket‘ which I reprised last week. Inspired by memories of my trip to Svalbard in 2015, I bring you a tale of hibernation.
It’s set on one of the planets in the neighbouring system to the Viridian System. Brahe is part of the Scania system, settled millennia ago by the Scandinavian refugees from the doomed planet Earth (Old Earth). This is just under 1700 words.
In the northern lands of Brahe, the second planet of the Scania system, strange rumbling noises rippled through the earth and air.
Berthold looked up, pushing the ice-rimed strands of hair back from his face. The logs about his feet were nearly cut to size. “Come, Axel, pick these up and stow them on the sledge. It’s time to move.”
“But it’s not sundown yet, papa.”
“It soon will be. We have far to go in the twilight, but we will be home before dark.”
The folk of the north were used to long twilights. They started in August, and by November they lasted most of the so-called day. Night, or darkness, took the rest of the rotation. With night, came the true cold. Axel helped his father stack the carefully cut logs onto the sledge, put up the sides to ensure nothing fell off, and climbed on board to tug the reindeer skins into place as his father pushed them up to him.
“Do you want to run or to ride?”
Berthold nodded, hitched the thick-coated dogs to their traces, and gave the command. The dogs took the strain, and the two humans pushed from behind. Once the sledge moved, it was easy. They let the dogs do the hauling, and caught up to run alongside them.
The rumbling came again.
“You know what that is?” Berthold asked his son.
“What do you say it is, then?”
“Ms Gudrunsdottir says it’s the giants who have eaten their Julmeals too fast, and have indigestion.”
Berthold snorted softly. “And what do you say?”
“Mr Bjornsson says it’s the gods arguing and stamping their feet.”
“And what do you say?” He smiled at the game. He loved to hear the new inventions Axel had thought up, although he could well believe his neighbours had told these stories to the children. After hearing what Mistress Agnetasdottir and Mr Guldersson had told him, he asked Axel one more time.
“I say the glaciers will be with us in a week or less.”
“Ha! And I say you have the right of it. Maybe a week, but most likely less. And have we enough wood for the winter sleep?”
“If everybody has brought as much as us, then I think so, papa.”
“You think the big woodpile will be big enough?”
“I’m sure it’s even bigger than last year. Jarl and I went and checked the line we marked in the rock last year. The pile is higher in places, even before we bring today’s home.”
“That should be enough, then.” As long as the glaciers didn’t continue to encroach further than they had last year, and the year before that.
The twilight had reached the peculiar translucent blue of the high north by the time they reached their settlement. They emerged into the long valley and turned left towards the caves and cabins huddled in the shelter of a great crag, between the mountain and the sea. Already five other sledges were at the woodpile, surrounded by villagers helping to offload and stack it as quickly as possible before nightfall. The tremors from the glacier’s movement were softer here, but even so, each new tremble set some people looking about them nervously. Axel and Berthold greeted their friends and set to unloading the sledge in front of theirs. Once it moved off, they would start on their own, and then one of those already coming towards them from the second valley mouth.
After all the sledges were accounted for, the workers gathered in the worked cave which formed their community hall. Warm soup and bread steamed in the firelight as people reached for their helpings.
“Well, Berthold,” said a huge man dressed in skins like Berthold, but with a leather sash across his chest. “What do you say to the glacier’s sounds?”
“I say we moved the settlement far enough for this year, but we should consider relocation during next summer.”
“I say you are right, but there is much to do if we are to find a new location as good as this. It is protected, is it not?”
“Aye, from the glacier outflow, yes, but if it spreads as it leaves the valley—or if it grows higher and overtops our mountain—what then, Petter?”
“At least we have harvested this year’s trees. We have done all we can with the resources at hand.”
“Maybe we need to find new resources, my friend.”
It was a conversation that was debated in many corners of the village over the next week, while the twilight became shorter, and continuous, until the day it never came. The villagers held a small feast to celebrate the onset of winter, with dancing and music. The next day the villagers went to their assigned quarters for the winter, put their boards outside to indicate when they should be woken for their shifts, and prepared for the winter sleep. The ritual had been established as long as forty years ago; even the eldest here had grown up with it. You slept, you woke, you carried out a week of maintenance and monitoring, you woke your relief party, and you returned to your winter sleep.
Berthold came awake at the shaking of his shoulder by Petter, the huge man with the sash. Already he looked thinner in the face, and his sash had loosened around him. “Berthold,” he repeated yet again.
“Is it time?”
“No. Do not wake your family yet. I have need of your counsel.”
Berthold struggled to full alertness. It was unheard of to wake someone outside the planned roster. Petter drew him up to a sitting position, and passed him an extra layer of clothing. “Come!”
The eerie glow of the water in the thermal spring cast shadows through the cave, making the wooden structures stand out like skeletal remains of cabins. They reached a kitchen-type area, and Petter poured a small glass of liquid from a bottle. “Drink!”
While Berthold drank the restorative, Petter grabbed a torch and lit it from the glowing heart of the small fire that burnt all through the winter sleep.
Berthold and Petter made their way to the cave entrance, taking care to avoid burning several barriers of leather hangings as they passed into ever colder parts of the corridor.
They pulled up their sealskin hoods over their woollen hats as they reached the parts where cold started to freeze the breath on their moustaches. At last, Petter pulled back the final entrance curtain.
The snow glinted in starlight. The stars of the galactic plane provided plenty of light to see by, if your eyes were attuned. Grey shapes shifted in the sky, a human vision of the northern lights. Petter pointed to their right, and Berthold gasped. Snow, as he had expected; the flat plain of the frozen valley; but, above that, a huge cliff blotted out the rest of the view.
“The glacier? So far?”
“And so close.”
“How far are we through the sleep?”
“Only halfway. The glacier will continue to advance for six more weeks.”
Berthold paused. His brain still felt sluggish, despite the time to restore his functions provided by the long tunnel. “How fast?”
Petter shrugged. “Arno said the top was level with the Kranskrygge when he first saw it. When he handed to me it was level with the Storneskrygge.”
“But…” Berthold stopped. There was no sign of either crag on the hill beyond the glacier. The angled face of the glacier blotted out half the view of the long valley. The hill was a thin dark line above it. The glacier glowed grey-blue in the darkness, seemingly lit from within by some supernatural power.
“I know. There are still two more days of my watch. But I would not want to hand over to Tordal without a clear warning to him, and to pass on in case…”
“Even if… we could not evacuate in the middle of the winter sleep.”
The two men stood, watching as the glacier calved onto the frozen sea. Berthold was right. They could not evacuate, even if the glacier spread around the end of the valley to block them in. There was nowhere to evacuate to at this time of year.
“So, we do nothing?”
Petter nodded. “We do nothing. We explain to the watchers. Advise them to stay secure.”
“Is there anything outside we should bring in?”
They turned away from the glacier and surveyed their homes, all half-buried in snow, roofs weighed down with skin and large rocks. Set fair for the northern winter. Everything as secure as it could be against the violent high latitude storms.
“The emergency woodpile.”
“Will be too much work to bring in. If we cannot access it from the other tunnel, we will have to go without.”
“Once families start waking up, we will need more.” Petter scratched his chin.
“Can we delay waking?”
Petter looked at his feet. “Maybe. I will think on it and leave information. You should return to sleep.”
“Unless I stay with you now, and hand over to Tordal once I am ready.”
Petter nodded. “Let’s go back.”
Once back in the cave, in the watcher’s snug, Berthold drew a map of the glacier, so far as he could imagine it, and Petter marked the growth he had seen for himself. They wrote out new instructions for the watchers to come. Then, between naps, they started to devise a plan should the glacier overwhelm their settlement during the course of this sleep. Surely it would retreat enough for them to get out before their supplies ran short?
And when it did, they would have another plan, the one to remove their settlement further south, which they would put into action. Not in years to come, as they had thought before the winter sleep had started, but this very summer.
This could be their last winter sleep—one way or another.
© J M Pett 2017