When the Little Ice Age began, back in the 14th century, it closed off shipping routes in the North Atlantic, and the villages in Greenland that had been settled back in the 11th century were suddenly cut off. Gradually, the villagers died out, from the effects of the cold, isolation, and decreasing food supplies, and by 1400 the settlements were nothing but empty ruins. When I read about this, I thought: what would it have been like to be the last one left alive? The question generated this poem.
Greenland Colony 1375
He goes down to the sea each day and walks the shore.
Each day the gray sea ice is closer, and fewer gulls come.
He wanders up toward the village, past the empty and ruined rectory.
The churchyard behind it has stone cairns. His wife lies beneath one,
And there is one for Thórvald, his son,
Though Thórvald's bones do not rest there; he and three others
Were gathered ten years ago in the sea's net
And came not home.
Since building his son's cairn,
He had buried one by one the last four villagers.
Each time he prayed in the in the stone church on Sunday
That he would be next,
And not left alone to watch the ice closing in.
In his father's time ships had come. The last one came
Fifty years ago.
Storms and ice made it easy for captains to forget
The village existed. For a time he prayed each Sunday
For a ship to come and take him to Iceland or Norway or anywhere.
None came. Ship-prayers died with the last villager,
Three years ago. He still prayed in the stone church on Sunday,
For other things; until last winter,
When the church roof collapsed in a storm.
The next Sunday he stayed home and prayed for other things there.
Now even the gulls are going,
Riding the thin winds to other shores. Soon they will all be gone.
He will walk the shore, looking out to sea for ships that will never come,
And see only the gray sea ice, closer each day.