The following is from Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir's Animal Life. Ólafsdóttir was born in Iceland in 1958, studied art history in Paris, and has lectured in history of art at the University of Iceland. She is the author of six novels, a collection of poetry, and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale. Her novels have been translated into over 25 languages. She currently lives and works in Reykjavik.
When I’ve sewn two stitches I leave the parents alone with the baby for a while. If it isn’t too windy to open the door at the end of the corridor, sometimes, between births, I step out onto the small balcony that overlooks the Miklubraut road. There are nine delivery rooms on the ward and I normally deliver one baby a day, although it can sometimes be as many as three in the peak season. They are sometimes born in the cafeteria, in the waiting room, even in the elevator up to the maternity ward. I once ran out to the parking lot and delivered the child of a terrified young couple on the passenger seat of an old Volvo. When I’ve spent a long day handling blood and flesh, I’m grateful for the celestial vault when I step onto the balcony.
I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with cold air. “She’s getting some fresh air,” my colleagues tell each other.
Over the past weeks the weather has fluctuated a great deal.
At the beginning of the month, temperatures were in the double digits, nature had started to reawaken, buds were appearing in the trees. On the fourth of December, nineteen degrees were measured at the northernmost meteorological station in the country, then it rapidly cooled; the temperature dropped by twenty degrees in a single day, and it started to snow heavily. Ploughs struggled with the snowdrifts that have piled up; the sky was heavy with snow and tree branches buckled under its weight. Cars vanished under a thick coat of whiteness and one had to wade, knee-deep, through it to get to the bins. Then it started to rain, causing immense thaws. Dams of slush formed in the rivers, which changed course and gushed over roads and meadows, leaving mud and rocks in their wake. Just a few days ago, there had been a television report about twenty horses in the south that had been trapped in the floods. The accompanying footage revealed patches of farmland like islands in the middle of the water and bedraggled horses, which one farmer said he had reached across the flooded pasture by boat. It remained to be seen what would be in the water when the flooding subsided, whether more animals would be found there.
“Nothing is the way it ought to be any more,” said the farmer to the reporter in the interview.
My sister, the meteorologist, says the same.
“One hopes everything will soon get back to normal again,” said the farmer.
In Ljósvallagata, the drains couldn’t cope with the water from the rainstorms and several storage rooms in the basement were inundated. When I examined the damage in my cellar, I found an artificial Christmas tree and a box full of decorations from my maternal grandaunt’s belongings, which I carried back up to the third floor. Following the floods, there was a severe frost and treacherously slippy black ice, and this week two women gave birth, their arms in plaster casts after stumbling. The only thing that has been constant all month is the wind. And the darkness. When I go to work it’s dark and when I get home from work it’s dark.
When I return inside, the new father is standing by the coffee machine in the corridor. He signals that he wants to talk to me. They’re both electrical engineers, this couple. As a colleague of mine has pointed out, there is a growing tendency now for couples to be members of the same profession: two vets, two sports newscasters, two priests, two police officers, two coaches, two poets. While the engineer chooses his coffee mix, he explains that the little one was actually scheduled to be born on the twelfth of the twelfth, on his paternal grandfather’s birthday, but he delayed his arrival by over a week.
He sips at the coffee and stares down at the lino, and I sense there is something weighing upon him. When he is finished with the cup he turns to the time of birth and asks exactly how it is calculated.
“It’s based on when the baby comes out,” I say.
“Not when the umbilical cord is cut? Or when the baby cries?”
“No,” I say and think to myself not every baby cries. Or draws a breath.
“No, the thing is I was just wondering whether it would be possible to write that he was born twelve minutes after twelve on the birth certificate instead of nine minutes after twelve. It’s a difference of three minutes.”
I study him.
They had arrived at the maternity ward last night and he hasn’t slept much.
“It would compensate for the twelfth of the twelfth,” he adds, crushing the paper cup.
I give this some thought.
The man is suggesting the child was unborn for the first three minutes of its life.
“I would really appreciate it,” he ends up saying.
“I might have looked at the clock wrong,” I say.
He throws the cup into the bin and together we walk back towards the room where the mother and son are waiting.
He halts in front of the door.
“I know Gerður wanted a daughter, even though she never let on. Women want daughters.” He hesitates and then says that they had read an article about how it was possible to control the sex of the child but it was too late by then.
“It went the way it went,” he says, holding out his hand and thanking me for the help. “When you think about it,” the statistics buff adds, “twenty million people share the same birthday as my son.”
My shift is over and I shove a box of candy from the engineering couple into my bag. It has a picture of a conical mountain and undulating northern lights on its lid; in fact the whole sky is a spectacular glow of green, pink and purple. I clock out as Vaka, the youngest midwife on the ward, clocks in for the night shift. We met when I instructed her during her internship. Since graduating, she has visited Ljósvallagata several times to seek advice and unburden herself. Interns sometimes cry when a baby is born, even if the birth is normal. They cry with the mother and they cry with the father and they sometimes need comforting.
A woman in labour says I can’t take it any more and the intern says the same.
“I can’t take it any more.”
I tell them “yes, you can take it.”
They ask “what if a partner pops out to get something to eat and the baby is born in the meantime? Am I liable for that? What if the partner dozes off during the birth? Should I wake him up?” Freshly qualified midwives might also be afraid of being left alone with a woman in labour for the first time and be scared that they might overlook something.
My young colleague is a member of the Icelandic Search and Rescue Squad and we’ve sometimes swapped shifts when she is called out. More often than not, it’s to search for lost tourists who have gotten their car stuck somewhere or misunderstood inscrutable road signs, people who had intended to take a photograph and driven off track and then lost their bearings because they hadn’t realized how rapidly the weather or wind direction could change, that there could be fair weather in the morning but a deadly snowstorm at noon, all changing in the blink of an eye. Or they hadn’t taken into account the darkness. There hadn’t been many call-outs for tourists this winter, but the SAR team had been summoned several times to help guide stranded whales back out into the open sea. There’s been recent talk in the news about the unusually high number of beached whales and carcasses that have washed ashore. This summer the rescue squad had been called out more than once because humpback whales had swum to land. No explanation could be found for the whales’ behaviour, but Vaka described to me how her colleagues had sprayed the black carcasses on the beach with water in a race against time to get them back out to sea again. But the next day the whales repeated their performance and swam back ashore.
“The problem was,” she said, “that they didn’t want to turn around.” Not long ago I came across an article that said there were many indicators that the whales’ behaviour in the Arctic was changing and that they were no longer swimming south across half the planet in the winter, as they once did. Which might explain the unusual number of stranded whales. According to the article, at first it was the cow whales who had recently calved that were staying behind, but recently males had also been heard singing mating songs by the coast, something they normally only do during mating season when they are trying to woo a partner and the females are fertile.
When the sky is clear, Vaka sometimes takes tourists on northern lights excursions, as a side job. If things are calm on the ward, she looks at pictures of rescue dogs online. She’s also compiled a list of the interesting tattoos she’s found on the ward’s patients, including a cauliflower and a barcoded banana, but also St Peter’s Dome in Rome and a farmhouse with a turf roof.
My weekend break is starting, but I’ll be on duty over Christmas as in previous years. Even though the hospital tries to give employees with small children a holiday, the fact is that I volunteer. The extra shifts go towards paying the mortgage off on the apartment. There are also plans to renovate the roof and replace the lino on the stairway. Which is why contributions to the condominium fund have temporarily been raised.
I put on my hat and zip my parka up to my throat. This morning a blizzard pelted the roofs of the cars like peas; now a cold shower of sleet splatters my chest. It’s difficult to work out which way the wind is blowing. While I’m putting on my mittens, a car drives up and halts right in front of the entrance to the maternity ward. I watch a man hopping out of the driver’s seat and running to open the door for a woman on the passenger’s side. He supports her as she steps out, and seems anxious; she has a strained expression on her face and a distant air in her eyes, I know the look, a journey from darkness to the light has already started; he holds her arm and, with slow steps, they walk those few metres into the entrance hall. If she is lucky, the baby will be out after a few torturous hours.
The man lets go of the woman to lock the car and grab the case and baby seat, then he has to park the car while she waits in the hall.
I smile at her.
“My waters have broken,” she says.
The woman props herself up against the wall by the elevator, droops her head and stares at the lino floor. I think she’s about to give birth.
I linger and say “try to breathe.”
“My mom had a bad dream last night,” says the woman.
I watch the man feeding the parking meter; he reappears with a baby seat in his arms. He’s in a state.
“I didn’t know how many hours to choose,” he says. “I chose six and hope that will do.”
Excerpted from Animal Life © 2020 by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. English translation © 2022 by Brian FitzGibbon. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.