Tarry the Night

1863, Rock Dell Township, Minnesota

The others had heard many times Cornelius Thorsen’s boastful retelling
of his grandfather’s greatness in having for decades bred Fjord draught
horses on Tandberg Farms for the whole of Northern Europe’s agriculture
industry.

“Then why would your family move to America, forsaking your rightful
inheritance?” Peter asked in a whisper just barely above the night’s
shadows. “And why is your father a miller instead of a horse-breeder
like his father before him?”

But Cornelius had already moved on to another tale.

“Without my help,” he explained, with cold, blue eyes, “the captain of
the Helvetia would not have been able to come full rudder, hard to
starboard. And, instead, the ship would have rolled against the froth
of a gigantic breaker and foundered.”

In the moonlight, Cornelius could see the unanimous look of disbelief
that even they, the solemnest of Norwegian fraternity, could not
conceal.

“It’s true! It took both the captain’s and my strength to right the
wheel and the ship’s course.” Then he placed his hand on top of his
head. “And that’s how I lost my cap, while crossing the North
Atlantic,” his hand lifting upward and away, like some object lost to
the trade winds.

“And I reckon you single-handedly ended the Sioux uprising of last
autumn.” Nels jested. Cornelius, ignoring him, turned to stare off at
the stable in the field surrounded by the dim-white speckling of sheep.

“Never mind all that,” Anders reproached Cornelius. “We’ve come all
this way because you claim that you and the pretty daughter of
Khristoff Middelson are as joined together as the birds in springtime.”

Cornelius looked into the three faces, noting how the sharp shadows
from the nearby bushes etched an intense expectation from one to the
next. For weeks, he had spoken boldly of how he and Kari had frequently
engaged in the tradition of nattfrieri, night courtship, in which
budding teenage boys and girls are permitted to spend the night
together, a usually tame approach to testing the waters of
pre-adulthood. Never mind that he had boasted how the occurrences had
taken place without the consent of either his or Kari’s parents. Never
mind that he was taking chances with Kari’s honor, should his friends’
loose tongues falsely bray throughout the community of her reputation
after this night.

“Get on with it then,” said Peter while Anders pushed Cornelius out
from behind the bushes.

“And remember,” added one of them, “you’re to bring back an item of
proof.”

“Right,” he whispered, while feeling the cool night air against the
sweat on his brow.

It was hardly uncommon for the children of sheep farmers to spend the
lambing season, all alone, up in the hills where the ewes found a good
mix of grasses and legume. Each member of the Middelson brood had taken
his or her place, in succession over the years, doing just that. This
was Kari’s year to guide the grazing flock from pasture to pasture, and
to be on watch for difficult birthings or ringwomb.

As Cornelius crept through the flock, he felt the nervousness of a son
of a miller, out of his element, trembling with every nose turning away
with indifference or shuttering when a hindquarter lightly hopped away,
parting the way for his advancement. While holding his breath from the
smell of sheep dung, he could hear the chuckling coming from the bushes
near the end of the field.

Nearer now to the back corner of the stable, Cornelius saw a lit lamp
inside. He hesitated long enough to realize he could neither go
forward, in the event Kari was awake, nor backward, for fear of the
ridicule he would surely encounter.

Just then, Kari stepped out from behind the stable’s opening. The light
from within the stable shone on one side of her face, covered in
perspiration, and ignited in Cornelius feelings a grown man would
describe as both wondrous and alluring.

“What are you doing here, Cornelius Thorsen?” She scolded, exhausted.

“I…I…”

“Never mind,” she snapped while taking him by the hand, and continued,
“I was going to fetch my Pa as one of the ewes is having difficulties
delivering. But you can help just as well.”

Cornelius felt a sense of satisfaction, while looking back toward the
bushes, as Kari pulled him into the stable. But it was short-lived as
he began to feel queasy once he gazed upon a ewe lying in a pool of its
own innards.

“But I don’t know anything about …”

“It’s your strength I need, Cornelius Thorsen. See these ropes? I’ll
tell you what to do. I’ve tried to pull it out by myself, but now I’m
too tired to pull any longer.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“We need to pull togehter on these ropes and save this little lamb. And
we must hurry.”

Kari smiled, nodding, as Cornelius got down on his knees beside her.
“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

Kari handed him one of the ropes and they both began to pull. After
only a few moments, the lamb slid free from its mother’s womb and into
the world. Then Kari quickly cleared its throat and gently wiped it
down with straw.

Both Cornelius and Kari exchanged smiling eyes for a moment before she
asked, “Have you run away from home?”

“No. I’m…”

“Or did you come here on a dare?”

He stiffened.

“I heard the laughter of your friends in the darkness.” He saw the look
of suspicion on her face. “And that look on your face means you’ve come
to the right place.”

“What do you mean?”

“’Baa’,” she mimicked, while looking out at the flock.

“Oh, right.” He stood up and began to shift from one foot to the other.
“I feel more like a goat.”

“Were you supposed to bring them back a trophy of some kind?”

He was speechless as she untied a ribbon from her hair and offered it
to him.

Embarrassed, he shook his head. “No. That’s okay.”

She shrugged and then asked, “What shall we name him?”

“Who?”

“Our baby lamb.”

“You name them?”

“Not usually. But in this case, we’ll pretend you’re Joseph and I’m
Mary, and we’ll name him Jesus.” She smiled.

Humbly, Cornelius smiled as well. And then he rose. “Good night, Kari
Kristoffsdatter.”

“Good night, Cornelius Thorsen.”

He walked slowly back to the bushes where the three boys were still
crouched in silence.

“What happened?” asked Peter. “Have you returned with proof?”

He looked back at the stable, and after a short pause, he spoke with an
exaggerated tone. ”Forget all the things I’ve told in the past, for
tonight tops them all! A miracle! My beloved Kari and I have just given
birth, bringing into the world a savior!”

The three friends each looked from one to the other before breaking out
in laughter.

“C’mon,” said Anders, while pushing Cornelius back down the hill. “It’s
late. We should be getting back to the village.”

Cornelius looked over his shoulder, not realizing he had aged this
night, yet still firm in the knowledge that his days of story-telling
had somehow come to an abrupt end.

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