Thursday, March 02, 2006


First published in Ireland of the Welcomes, Jan/Feb 1997.
Grey-brown clouds darkened the horizon, bringing with them a threatening wave of chill air. Highland sheep huddled behind walls; in deep, damp hollows; by lone thorns, ancestral genes warning them of imminent snow. In the valley, old men sniffed and looked skywards, cracked stubborn joints, muttered against age, and turning away went back to their fires. The air dried, and slightly warmed. A hush followed, then, silently, the first large flake fell, one here, two there, another elsewhere; on the top of a robin's favourite fence-post; on the crooked nose of last-year's scarecrow; onto the clamp of turf beside the gable; on the scarce remains of fruit in the orchard; on the cover of the holy well; in the ruts of the country lane; on stones in the brown-running stream; until sky and earth were sugar-frosted, blurred together into rice-papery, marshmallow, whipped-creamy white.

Still it fell, softly, gently, layer upon layer of wefting, weaving crystals, tiny fingers lacing together, strands forming, floating, falling to rest in anything that held them, arching delicately across miniature grass-blade gaps, plucking at spiderwebs in passing, downing the world as if it were a new-hatched nestling chick whose mother, Springtime, will soon return.

Beneath the trees, islands formed, snowflakes in the lee of old sycamore, rising up from bramble skirts. Whiteness spread around corners, under fences, under the bridge, as the calm, sedate shower began to stiffen into flurries. Flakes then stippled over roof-slates, tripped against walls, careered across the open fields. Crystals shaped and reshaped into new forms, powdery, speed driven, stinging snow.

The wind rose, moaning around the orchard and the valley cottages. Knife sharp and icy, it stabbed the fallow land and fields, sliced by the pond, banked back. It probed nooks and crannies, leaving behind it whiter calling cards that stacked up, neglected, like so much unwanted post, began to drift across the laneways, clambered up sides of telegraph poles, obscured roadway signs, cast sinister traps over drains, clad the quiet country in loneliness, desertion.

Night fell quickly, stars appearing as the snow clouds swirled away on other errands. The wool-like blanket hiding seeds and slumbering things alike began to freeze into many forms: ramps, plateaus, planes and angles; knives, scythes, and spear shapes; undulating sea-shore sands when tide turns; piped icing; crochet-knitted yarns and feathered fans. The moon rose, casting strange shadows over all, a weird fluorescent quality emerging beneath. Animals nosed from secret burrows to creep cautiously about thin crusts, leaving tell-tale signs of paw and claw. They crisscrossed fields, trails of four-legged creatures, rabbit, badger, fox, small ghosts in a ghostly whiteness, a landscape of fitful dreams.

When the sun rose, the tracks were joined by others, three-toed, hopping, crows and smaller birds, looking for food in the hard, hidden ground. Fires dampened for the night were fanned into life, breakfasts made, and children wrapped up snugly for the day. Soon the sounds of humankind filtered across the silent world of sunlit, shining snow, screams of delight or protest, snowballs, sleds and snowmen, boots crunching, kicking, sliding. Winter's stage was set once more, dressed and decorated, oblivious to we players, the world slowly turning to the endless beat of time.

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