The Shortest Day

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Drab and bleak from the kitchen window, but change is on the way

After a cold fortnight, the shortest day broke mild and grey.

I peered through an open window in the darkness. The morning felt warm and some geese were passing in the cloud. Fields clicked and chattered as they drained the night’s rain, and drips plopped off gutters in the yard. A pair of tractor headlights moved on the distant hill, and a single snipe called noisily – a harsh, rasping sound on the edge of music. Our cockerel answered from the shed, and his din made the tin roof ring.

Snipe vanished from the glen when the weather was cold, but they returned within hours of the thaw. I took the dogs to check my snares before breakfast and found the half-light filled with noisy waders.

Our stretch of the river was straightened many years ago, but the labourers were unable to iron out the old bends. The river now follows a perfect line through the dark soil, but you can still see where the old waterway used to play in swampy, tangled loops. Heavy rain can bring the old river back to life – subtle contours flood again and become strings of narrow pools; pouchy old veins which bristle with reeds. While the new river rushes water briskly out to sea; the old one hoards the rain and refuses to let go.

Snipe cluster in these haunted, sodden corners. The dogs flushed thirty birds from a short section of the pools as the day brightened. Drainage tiles were arranged across these fields to bail water into the river, but after years of service they are beginning to fail. The terracotta pipes are breaking and the water has started to flow backwards. Without urgent human intervention, the river will begin to resume its ancient course – the snipe pray for regression.

The bull calf bellowed when he heard me after breakfast. His shyness has vanished, and he feeds from my hand. A metal bucket is his dinner gong, and he tossed his head when I stepped into his line of sight. He views the world through a square cinderblock doorway as if it were a cinema screen. The day flickers in a sequence of polaroid photographs;  alternating phases of blue, grey and darkness. But he can watch the wild swans on the silage fields, and his nights are haunted by the comings and goings of owls.

Everyone agrees that he’d be better outdoors, but there are advantages to this early confinement. He might roll his eyes and moan, but there are worse places in this world and he can settle here without coming to harm. Dull days and low cloud have reduced him to a dark silhouette against the straw. There are no electric lights, but we can see that he has a fine head; it is heavy and square like a belfast sink. The curls grow so thick on his brow that they swallow my hand to the wrist. It is hard to find fault with him.

A starling died at noon. I watched the peregrine peeling its corpse from the kitchen window as I fried an egg. The day was already over, and the fields began to recede beneath a veil of thin, chesty cloud. Later I would find most of the starling’s skull amongst a mess of feathers – a glossy ball which reminded me of a cape gooseberry; a discarded garnish.

Darkness is relative in a world without light, but night fell with a rush of wildfowl. Wigeon whooped joyfully in the deep blue, and snipe and teal flared over the sheds as I chopped firewood. I ducked under the low lintel of the byre and scratched the pigs between their ears as one of the owls drifted by outside, skirling noisily into the smirr. Swirling rain danced like smoke in the light of the kitchen window and lacquered the granite setts of the yard. It was only four thirty. A vixen screamed for attention on the moss. The dogs coughed a response for a moment, then jostled past my knees and back to the hot stove.

From this distance, summer feels like another place. I can hardly remember cuckoos or swallows, but the darkening has now slipped into reverse. Months of gradual compression will now begin to relax, and daylight will leak back into our lives. The first larks usually sing on Valentine’s day in Galloway – less than eight weeks away. It will be several weeks before human beings can register the lengthening days, but the shift has been clocked by others.

4 thoughts on “The Shortest Day

  1. Great descriptions as always, none more so than describing your new bull calves head as heavy and square like a Belfast sink. Down here in mid Wales a Mistle Thrush was singing from the highest branches of a Ash tree, a sign that the year is about to turn.

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