A Winter's Tale
It looks like pure hell out there. The isobars on last night's weather report were vertical, a bubble of pure Antarctic air blasting its way up to the South Island.
“Rug up, New Zealand!” chirps the weatherman, and it's good advice. No pleasant little snowfall last night but the real deal. The landscape is stripped bare to its very bones by now: leafless, sere and slumbering, time looking neither forward nor backward. For all that, I consider scouting up a fish; some of the water around here is still open. Not a bad time for a wet fly, though even trout can be stunned by weather. Eventually I make the call to take the dog and an old side-by-side down to the river, hoping the snow might give us the drop on a ringneck. Here, close to a town, pheasants are well educated and more than a little crafty.
It isn't to be. After three hours we've seen just one bird, pointed deep under a wilding oak. By mid-winter, the acorns have been seasoned and seem more palatable to game birds, or maybe they just get hungry enough to ignore the tannin. Either way, the long silhouette lifts with a distinctive soft flutter of wings and the gun comes up nicely, but with no spluttering kok-kok-kok, all hope fades. A female, so off limits. My hands are numb with cold, and even breaking the gun is a dull ache. The hen accelerates, catches the wind and sets her wings for parts unknown. All easy straightaways, I find, are hens. The walk home is a long one as a soft
rain begins to fall. Moving through broom, gorse and long grass, I bump a sapling and am showered with freezing water. A familiar fluting call breaks the silence and far overhead a handful of Canada geese appear; southerly, lonely silhouettes beating their way against an immense sky of brooding cloud. No shortage of fresh air out here, that's for sure.
Cold and wet, the dog never ceases his constant probing through the blackberry canes, a few still with tattered purple leaves. Occasionally he'll lift his head, scout confusedly for me, then resume his beat with a wagging tail. That's one of the great things about dogs — their zest for life turns even the harshest work into a great moment. However, there isn't much time left on this, the shortest day of the year, and we make ground quickly into the wind.
Then home at last, empty handed. It happens sometimes. Time to kick the Red Bands off and opening the door is like entering another world. Blue gum popping away in the wood burner, now a bed of deep coals, the wood split back in the blazing days of summer when it seemed such an unnecessary thing to do. An hour later, the old dog is sleeping nose to tail, content and snoring. His soft ears are full of blackberry rips, and here and there, a few thorn tips will need to come out. Not right now though, he's worn down but warm and wants a sleep. Fair enough.
There's a casserole slowly ticking away on the stove, a bubble or two here and there, venison just right for the long slow treatment. Some spuds from the garden too, yellow agrias, for a creamy garlic mash. Might even melt a little cheese into that. Needs a red wine, rich and deep, or a malty ale from that little brewery down the road. Funny lot, brewers. Didn't seem to be making a lot of money, but a happy bunch.
There's even a smoky, peat-scented Scotch on the sideboard. A nip will be just the thing later, when the kids have gone to sleep. Turn the lights down low and bank the fire, time to savour it properly while rain drums away on the tin roof. All good.
No, there's nothing wrong with winter, if you have it in you to love the unloved.
This night will be the longest of the year, and the coldest is yet to come, but as the days imperceptibly lengthen, roots will begin to stir and buds will swell. It seems so very far away, but a minor miracle is building as surely as the rising of the sun.
The year has turned upon its hinge. Summer is coming.