Dead of Winter: A Christmas short story from Cork writer Billy O'Callaghan

The Cork author writes exclusively for Irish Examiner readers, evoking a harsh winter on the farm, and the warmth of love and longing
Dead of Winter: A Christmas short story from Cork writer Billy O'Callaghan

Pic: iStock

The stream skirting the far edge of Michael Dwyer's bottom field had been thickened by the recent torrents and turned to slop, and early on the Tuesday, the shortest day of the year, one of the heifers had waded in and become mired. 

Michael heard her bleating from the top of the incline, the sound shrill and full of despair in the lingering dark, but because the bank on that side had no hope of bearing the tractor's heft he'd lost nearly the entire morning to the ordeal of standing knee-deep in a slime of mud and water, stripped to his shirtsleeves for ease of movement but cold to his very bones, coaxing and dragging and, for the sake of solid footing, trying to floor the stream bed with rocks and off-cuts of timber until finally, after what had felt like hours, he'd calmed the beast enough to be able to drive her free. 

Afterwards, to avoid traipsing mud through the kitchen, he washed at the tap behind the cattle shed, then had to set about pinning down some sheets of corrugate that the November gales had broken loose along the shed roof's pitch, working at that until past noon, refusing to give up until everything was once again fixed solid, even though his fingers, as hardened as they were to the elements, could no longer properly feel the ladder's rungs or the handle of the hammer.

Because of these delays it was already early afternoon before he was able to start up the hill towards his mother's cottage, shoulders hunched in the black wool greatcoat that his father used to wear to marts, and which he, for all Gráinne's feeding, didn't come near to filling. 

But the weight of it had a warmth much needed and more than welcome with the weather on the turn. 

There'd been snow the previous evening, just a smattering but with a lot more forecast for the coming days and nights, along with plummeting temperatures, and by the time he'd changed out of his wet and muddy clothes and was ready to leave the house it had begun falling again, in hesitant enough flurries yet but with the threat of worse to come, the flakes swirling hard in the breeze.

Gráinne had taken the van, and as he walked now, keeping to the middle of the narrow road, the grassy gullies on either side brimming from the recent rain, he remembered her saying as he'd climbed out of bed earlier something about needing to get down into the village for a few final provisions. 

The cake and pudding were already made, the goose hung and the ham and spiced beef in the big fridge outside the back door, but it'd be no harm to stock up on a couple of pounds of tea and sugar, if the snow was going to be as bad as they were saying, as well as a tin or two of biscuits and a box of sweets, a few packets of red jelly for the trifle. 

Another bottle of whiskey, too, in case of visitors, and, the way he was getting through them of an evening, a couple more crates of stout. And candles, because there was no knowing would the electricity hold. 

Feeling his way into his clothes in the dark, he'd heard her talk, still with the leftover softness of sleep, and understood it as a gesture of connection ahead of how the day was going to hold them apart, the way their days tended to, she busy in one direction, he in another, until they could sit down to a bit of supper together of an evening. 

Words, meant in the same way he intended the kiss that he pressed gently to her lips before going through the house to get the fire lit and the kettle boiling, giving her the few extra minutes beneath their blankets in the dark. 

She'd turned forty-one in June, and the lateness that she'd mentioned in a murmur ten days back but had refused, then and still, to openly discuss, meant one of two things, but the new year would bring clarity and there was neither sense nor worth in speculation. Until then, there was Christmas to be savoured.

Had the van been in the yard he'd have driven the hill, and she'd likely have accompanied him, unable to hide her delight at stealing this bit of time from her usual routine, and smiling because she loved Christmas and always felt herself so generally helpless against its cheer. 

In a vehicle, he could do in ten minutes the round trip that'd take him an hour or more on foot, but actually, even with the cold, the occasional easterly gusts of breeze slashing at him, this was what he wanted – to have this time alone, the empty road waiting to be walked, the last of the light holding on, the sky pepper-coloured away to his left, out over the tumble of the land and, beyond it, the sea, where an unseen sun was sinking low and trying hard to set. 

Room for reflection, and recalling Christmases past, walking this road side by side in silence with his father, or as a small boy holding his mother's hand, part of him restless to run ahead but something else inside him, because there'd always been a shade of melancholy about him, wanting never to have to let go.

He leaned into the incline, feeling a tuck of sadness at the thought of how she used to be on Christmas mornings, so busy in the kitchen, sleeves rolled up past her elbows and occasionally wiping the sweat from her brow with the back of her wrist but smiling at him when he entered at a run, cheeks ruddy from the cold, having been outside with his new football or the bike he was given one year, her eyes, wide with love for him, such an autumnal shade of windfall, the woody and amber tannins of soft sun and turning leaves, that seemed to mark her out as one of a kind in the world. 

Holly had always grown plentiful on the hillside, and she'd have sprigs tucked behind every picture on every wall, trying to resist until the few days immediately ahead of Christmas, never sooner than the solstice, before sending Michael out for it so that the heat of the turf fire wouldn't have it withered. “Plenty of berries now,” she used to say, as if he'd needed telling, “and don't be sparing with your cuts. There's ample for the birds if they want to help themselves.” 

He made the task last half the day, surveying what crop there was across the hillside, feeling grown up to have the hacking knife in his hand, the ten-inch blade tarnished nearly black with age but as strong as any sword, and even though what he brought home, late in the afternoon, was always too much, stuffed loosely into a great canvas sack, her expression lit up at the sight of it, the spiky green swathe freckled in tiny scarlet baubles. 

While he emptied the bag out onto the linoleum, she filled mugs with cocoa and cut a couple of fingers of the cake she'd spent weeks making and which they had already, a few nights earlier, broken into, Michael's father having no patience for calendar numbers, and they sat at the table, side by side and close enough to one another that a couple of times, unable to help herself, she'd put an arm around him and drawn him into a tight embrace, telling him that she could hardly believe how much like her own father he was getting, and how proud she was of him, how good a boy he was, in the ways that counted. 

Had there been anyone there to see, he'd have blushed with embarrassment and wrestled to get loose, but because it was just them, he hugged her hard in return and with his mouth pecked the cheek she presented, and even now, all these years on, the exact soft warmth of her skin remained with him, and how safe and loved he'd felt half-smothered in those arms and held so fast, how adored, the smell of her not only that of the kitchen in high heat, sweet and rich, a baked sense of a dozen melding flavours, but of the season as a whole, and the world as it was then and as he wished it could be still.

The wind cut through him, filling his eyes with stinging tears, and the snow had enough weight about itself now to thin out the land away on his left side and make gruel of the sky in that direction, the last of the light out there a vague yellow bruise against the narrow slate of sea. 

Billy O'Callaghan: evokes a harsh winter on the farm, and the warmth of love and longing
Billy O'Callaghan: evokes a harsh winter on the farm, and the warmth of love and longing

On a whim, and hardly without even deciding to do so, he clambered up into the ditch on that side of the road and with just his hands to tear them free, began to pluck stems of holly. The abundance of berries suggested this winter season would run long, that there'd be cold right through into March or even April; but up here, on the year's shortest day, with dusk already settling in ahead of full-blown dark and the time by the watch Gráinne had given him for his last birthday reading still only a quarter to four, the view, even from such good vantage, this high above the tide, ran to nowhere near that distance. 

All around him in the ditch, small creatures stirred in panic, field mice scrabbling to get away, birds crying out their warning songs, half a tiny hidden army of wrens in huge, beautiful chorus and, close enough for him to notice the briar trembling, a robin. Then, after a minute or so – holding back, it seemed, until it could be assured of having the stage to itself – the lonesome flute notes of a blackbird. 

Thinking back to how he'd hunted these ditches for eggs, and suddenly sorry for it, he quickened to his task, snapping loose the holly's twigs and small limbs and tossing them lightly down onto the road's verge, using the long grass as a cushion for their fall.

Ten minutes later, out of breath from the climb and the biting cold, a sweep in the road brought the house into view, the familiar whitewashed shape some fifty yards away shadowy against the growing dark and framed in bare trees and lush hedging: the front windows like eyes, long and sorrowful, one on either side of the cottage's front entrance, the red half-door that had been hanging since the time of his mother's grandfather; the roof pitched sensibly high and steep to prevent snow and ice from banking but which put it at the mercy of gales whenever wind swept in from the south or south-west. 

He'd had his bed in the narrow attic space beneath that roof, beside the partitioned-off section kept for storing the Christmas decorations that got hauled down year after year, stringy tinsel and lights which usually took his father hours to get working, as well as those precious infant items, cradles and prams, boxes of clothes, that were packed away with meticulous care and then lost to the passing years. 

In that bed, safe from the thundering rain and the voice of the wind in the eaves, and close to the music of the birds welcoming in the dawn, he'd dreamed his best dreams, lying there thinking about ghost stories and the cowboy films that kept him in front of the television on Sunday afternoons even if there were better things to be doing, or fights he'd had and nearly half the time won, or, a little later on, girls he liked at school but didn't quite dare talk to.

For just a moment his heart lifted, and then, because the house was empty now, lifeless, a rush of sadness overwhelmed him. His mother had died in September, twelve years to the month, if not quite the day, on from his father's passing. 

“I'll just slip away,” she used to tell him, sitting in the silence by the unlit fire, with the net curtains on the window ahead of her diffusing the spring or summer evening light to a drowsy, dusty softness. “You'll come in some day and find me gone, with just the husk of me left behind to bury.” 

Talking this way for years, it seemed, almost from the time they'd put his father in the ground, as if she'd read a future already written. But she'd been mistaken; there'd been no slipping away. A cold in late August had gone to her chest, and within a week she was in hospital, against her will and her wishes, with a pneumonia that she fought as best she could, to not much avail. 

Because she'd pleaded with him, taking a fistful of his shirtsleeve to draw him close, and because a doctor one morning in the corridor had admitted, grudgingly, that her rapid deterioration suggested there wasn't much time left and not much they could do apart from make her comfortable, he'd had her discharged into his and Gráinne's care, bringing her home to their cottage rather than to her own and settling her in a bed in the back room that they'd been redecorating without discussion every couple of years in bright, fresh shades.

And through the struggle of her final few hours it was Gráinne that she had beside her while he hid away in the fields, mowing and baling the second-cut silage, praying without focus, not quite sure what he was supposed to be asking for but finding some ease in the soft relentless tumult of the words, and feeling his childhood alive again and vivid inside him, whether holding her hand on the road down the hill to school or mass and listening enraptured to the stories she told, drawn from her own childhood or her mother's, about people who'd lived for a time along this way and what had become of them, or sitting on the kitchen table, sandalled feet swinging in good time as the wireless played something slow and stately, Come to the Fair or Tabhair Dom Do Lámh, and she danced a one-sided waltz around what little of the floor was going spare. Waves of these, moments of little real significance but each, to him if to no one else, golden.

He let himself in. The air in the house was cold enough to make steam of his breath, and the rooms silent in what surely had to be the final few minutes of the snowy twilight. Immediately, he set to work, putting up fresh sprigs of holly on the pictures that still decked the walls, stripping away the withered pieces from the previous Christmas, those leaves baked by now to leather, the berries shrunken to black stones, so brittle that they crumbled to the least touch. “Leave the holly where it is,” his mother used to say when, in early January, the tree and decorations were being taken down, “so that the person who put it up this year will be around to take it down the next.” The same words every year, her genuflection towards the promised immortality of the evergreen.

The chore, small as it was, took just a few minutes, and once completed he came and sat beside the empty fireplace, in her old comfortable armchair, facing the window. Night had at last settled, and the wind whispered and moaned in the chimney but the house had all the stillness of a held breath. He sighed and closed his eyes and felt the air against his skin still somehow charged with all the life that had ever been lived here, all the love there'd been. Against it, his grief rose again, but with a new softness, the melancholy gentler, almost content. 

Gráinne understood his attachment to the house and his hesitance in putting it up for sale, and some nights ago, lying awake in the dark, she'd been right in suggesting his sadness had beauty about it, being such an acknowledgement of love. His mother wasn't gone, she said, turning her body against him beneath the heavy blankets and drawing him into such a tight embrace that he had no option but to hold on. Nor his father, either. Not while he kept an altar to them in his heart. 

“Time is short, Michael, but memory is long.” 

He'd sighed upon hearing this, and kissed her with need when she brought her mouth to his, and he'd have thanked her if there'd been the necessity between them for further words. The house would indeed have to go, and they'd make good use of the money it fetched, though he'd try, if he could, to hold off on such dealings until spring, when the days started to stretch. Until then, he'd continue his evening visits, to keep the place maintained and to sit while he still could with his old ghosts.

An engine's approach brought him back to the moment, its rumbling amplified by the otherwise silence, but he didn't move until the pale wash of headlights wandered across the window, and then, because he knew it was Gráinne coming to find him, he stood and made for the door.

Outside, the snow had blanketed everything, and its relentless tumble, languorous but incessant, made a haunting blue-greyness of the night. The low stone wall to the west side of the house, and the fields immediately beyond, lay smothered, and those landfalls that for the years of his childhood had framed the edges of his world were now rubbed from view, leaving life in every direction open to reinvention. Gathering the lapels of his coat in one fist just beneath his throat, he stepped out from the shelter of the house and hurried to the van.

Gráinne met him with a distracted kiss, her expression both harried and giddy with awe, and told him, a little too forcefully, that the roads were already treacherous and by morning would be surely impassible, and that he'd been reckless venturing up here alone on foot. “What were you even thinking?” she asked, wrestling the wheel to its right and getting them back out onto the hill at a bare crawl.

He confessed that he hadn't been thinking at all, and whatever unintentional note she caught in his tone made her glance across at him and, after a slightly anxious beat, to grin.

“I married a fool,” she said, chiding him in that way he liked. “A lovely, handsome fool.” Steering carefully, they descended the hillside, to where their home waited, promising a Christmas warm and safe and full of hope.

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