Survival


God formed every beast of the field (Gen. 2:19).

My knees were aching from kneeling on the chair pulled up beneath the window. It seemed as if I had been looking out the window forever. “When will they come?” I asked.

My father looked at me over the top of his glasses. He was sitting at the kitchen table, mending one of his fishnets. “It’s getting late,” he said. “They should come soon.” He leaned over the table and opened the window.

The cool night air felt good on my face. It was almost midnight, but it was not very dark outside. Even this late in the summer, the nights in northern Sweden never got darker than a muted dusk. I could clearly see the big birch behind the house and the small boat shed next to it. And the lake, smooth and calm, mirrored the woods beyond it.

The rest of the family was asleep. Only my father and I were sitting in the dark kitchen, waiting. He had seen it many times, but I never had.

“When will they come back?” I asked.

“When the hunting season is over.”

“But how do they know when it’s over?”

My father came over and put his arm around me. “I’m not sure,” he said. “They just know.”

I thought about this for a while. At six, there were many things that I didn’t understand. “Maybe Heavenly Father tells them,” I said.

“Maybe.”

Father touched my arm. “Look, Brita,” he whispered.

I looked out the window and saw the first elk crossing our driveway and coming into the garden. He stopped for a moment, and I saw his magnificent antlers outlined against the sky. Then he resumed his pace and continued down toward the lake. There was hardly a ripple on the surface as he unhesitatingly walked into the water and began to swim toward the other side.

Then came the next elk, and the next. There were never two together. One at a time the animals passed by our window and went down to the water.

I knelt on my chair, spellbound. There was no sound at all. It was as if they weren’t real, but creatures created by the magic of the night. The proud head of the first elk had become just a dot far out in the water. Ours was a wide lake, and I marveled at the elk’s courage in attempting to swim all that distance.

We watched in silence until they were all so far out that even when I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see them.

“What if they don’t make it?” I asked.

“They will.” My father’s voice was confident. He went over to the stove and put more wood on the fire.

“How many were there?”

“Seventeen.” He paused. “Last year there were twenty-four. Maybe one day there will be none.”

No elk at all! I felt like crying, and all of a sudden I was very tired. I slipped down from my chair and walked barefoot across the kitchen floor. Then I thought of something and turned around. “Will no one kill them on the other side?”

My father was looking out the window, and I could see that his thoughts were far away. After a while he said, “It’s much safer there than here. There are no roads, no houses, and the forest is very dense. The elk know that they have a better chance to survive there.” He was silent for a moment, then added, “They always come back, though. I’ve often wondered why.”

I wanted to ask something else, but I forgot what it was. My eyelids were heavy. “Goodnight,” I said.

As I pulled the quilt over me and buried my face in the soft pillow, I remembered. How can such large animals move so quietly? I would ask tomorrow. …

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown