The sheep farmer walks his family’s land one last time, rifle slung over his shoulder, a shovel his walking stick. With each step he leaves tracks in the muddy earth. The harsh wind blows shards of grass seed into his eyes. He examines the mountainous skyline ringing his farm like so many prison bars, and snaps one last mental photograph of his dark cell, a reminder to never return to the homeland that has contained him, taken from him and drained him for so long.
The dog trots behind, loyally following his owner across the paltry croft into the thicket of the approaching storm. He earned his dog’s loyalty. He once spent two weeks coaxing his beloved companion back to life after the dog contracted a stomach virus. There he was, this tough, hardened man spoon-feeding a special electrolyte mixture into his dog’s mouth, and hiding antibiotic pills in spoonfuls of peanut butter. The pills that saved the dog’s life, along with the veterinarian’s home visits, drained his savings. Alfgrimur believed spending all that money to save an animal was pointless, but he had a wife, someone to warm him each night before he fell asleep, someone to make eye contact with come morning.
After the sheep farmer’s wife died, Halldor Laxness was his only companion. This faithful farm dog provided him with a reason to live when any other reasonable man who had suffered his losses would’ve given up.
His grandfather died trying to cultivate life on this 20-hectare patch of dirt and rocks. The sheep farmer’s father worked the land, but unable to eke out enough food to survive, the family was forced to eat sheep-blood sausages while sucking the marrow out of the sheep’s hooves. Tired of poverty, his father bequeathed the farm to the sheep farmer’s older brother, and then to earn more money signed up to crew the town’s smallest fishing vessel, the 22-foot Hope And A Prayer. On his father’s second week at sea, Hope And A Prayer literally froze to death. The desperate crew used axes to chop the ice that had formed on the ship’s rigging and along the sides of the boat, but the crew couldn’t axe through the ice fast enough, and the North Atlantic swallowed Hope And A Prayer into its salty swells. A week later word reached the family.
His mother couldn’t take it. Three months later, she ended her life, turning the sheep farmer and his older brother into orphans. His older brother farmed the homestead out of duty to his father even though life on this scrap of land was cold, blistery and futile. When his brother turned 33 he looked 63, and one day an aortic embolism killed him. Farming north of 66° latitude either strengthens a man or ravages him, day by day.
His grandfather. His father. His mother. His only sibling. The sheep farmer figured he had suffered more than his share of tragedy. He prayed that God had finally decided that He had taken enough from the sheep farmer’s family. What more could God legitimately demand this farm sacrifice before He was satisfied? So the sheep farmer stayed on, spending the insurance money his father’s death finally paid out on a modest flock of sheep. Unfortunately, God had not finished taking—the sheep farmer’s wife and sheep were killed by snow and the barn’s roof.
Grief still smothers him. After enduring his entire family, one by one, dying; after a momentary lapse of reason he killed a stripper, and after protecting his secret by filling his best friend with buckshot, the sheep farmer has hit the wall. Everyone has a breaking point. All that’s left now is for the sheep farmer to say goodbye to his kin who remain buried on this deadened land.
Bending down on one knee, in the paltry, rocky, make-shift graveyard next to the barn where a handful of headstones, cracked by the always-shifting earth, mark his family’s final resting place, he scoops up a handful of rocks and curses this lifeless land. He opens his hand and drops the rocks next to his rifle and shovel. He scrapes up some mud and smears it on his wife’s gravestone, applying it like paste. He plucks a patch of purple lupin, the wild flower that grows unrestrained during the Icelandic summer, even on this corroded farm. He places this makeshift bouquet onto the tombstone, dabbing mud over the stems to glue the flowers to the headstone, securing the flowers so the wind won’t wrestle them away.
Using his rifle as a cane he stands; he stares down at his farm dog, wanting to explain that sometimes in life the only option is to surrender.
The lab wags his tail. He pets the animal, and the dog rolls onto his side, lifting his right front leg to expose his belly for a rubdown. Instead, the sheep farmer presses the rifle to the dog’s head. “Sorry, pup. I reckon we all gotta die someday.” The dog blinks, but before the animal opens his eyes to the grimy, stormy summer day the sheep farmer pulls the trigger. With the gunshot still ringing in his ears, he tosses the rifle aside, wipes tears from his eyes, picks up the shovel and starts digging yet another family grave.
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