Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The news from St Kilda

From  Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky

St Kilda
Uninhabited; evacuated in 1930.
Last case of neonatal tenatnus in 1891.

"There are sixteen cottages, three houses, and one church in the only village on St Kilda. The island's future is written in its graveyard. Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth, or sixth night. On the seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict, so it becomes impossible to get them to swallow anything. Their muscles twitch and their jaws hang loose. Their eyes grow staring and they yawn a great deal; their open mouths stretch in mocking grimaces.

"Between the seventh and the ninth day, two-thirds of the newborn babies die, boys outnumbering girls. Some die sooner; some later; one dies on the fourth day, another not until the twenty-first. Some say it is the diet: the fatty meat of the fulmars and their eggs smelling of musk that make the skin silky smooth but the mothers' milk bitter. Or that it is the result of inbreeding. Yet other say that the babies are suffocated by the smoke from the peat fires in the middle of the rooms, or that it is the zinc in the roofs or the pale pink oil that burns in the lamps. The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men.The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness are silent.

"On 22 June 1896, one woman stands on the deck of a ship that is bringing her home. Like all the women of St Kilda she has soft skin, red cheeks, exceptionally clear eyes, and teeth like young ivory. She has just given birth to a child, but not at home. The wind is blowing from the north-east. Long before she can be seen from the shore, she lifts her newborn high in the air."

This book makes me envious and greedy.--HH

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