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The sun wakes me. My room is peaceful in the unaccustomed warmth and light but, as I rise to walk to the window, I realize the familiar thud of remembrance has not arrived. For the first time I have woken already knowing you have gone.
The valley is washed clean by the early spring sun. The last of the snow has been chased away leaving the freshly laundered fields soft and greenly glowing. I know there will still be pockets of snow, deep in clefts on the hills and under hedges where the sun can’t reach. ‘Snow bones,’ my granny called those remnants. ‘They’re here to remind you,’ she said, ‘the sun may be shining but never forget winter will come again.’
The hills around our highland valley are still in shadow for now. I can’t see our neighbour as he climbs the steep bank behind his farmhouse on his way to check the sheep, but I know he’s there. Only a handful of ewes still remain in the lambing sheds he tells me, despite this long, hard winter they have done well, and he hasn’t lost a single lamb.
How well have I done? Well, like the sheep I’m still here. I’ve weathered the worst days I’ve ever known. My spirit as frozen as the land, my loss an icicle hammered deep into my core. I was glad when the road was blocked, when the powerline was down. All I wanted was silence to study my grief. No other voices to detract from my remembrance of yours. No other footsteps to drown out the sound of you stamping wellingtons by the door or shuffling carefully along the hall in your slippers.
‘You must come and stay with us mum,’ Connie had persisted when winter began to take its hold, ‘I’m so worried about you on your own in that deserted valley.’ I have neighbours’ I told her, ‘they watch out for me.’
‘Oh mother,’ she would go on, her exasperation creeping through gaps in the telephone line, ‘John and Mary aren’t exactly next door!’
Maybe not, but I saw them each day even if it was just a long distance wave and I wasn’t leaving my home, our home for the last twenty years, just to ease anyone’s worries.
On mornings like this we would have walked before breakfast, knowing how quickly the elements could change up here and so, before the mantle of peace under which I had woken, begins to crack, I go in search of coat and boots.
I wrap up on top of my pyjamas, knowing if I stay to dress I might change my mind, and step out into the new day.
The footpath that rises above our cottage has suffered through the last few months, and will need attending to. Perhaps I can find someone in the village to see to it. Finding it difficult to pick my way along it I think of nothing except making safe progress until I near the crest of the first ridge. The sun is racing me up the fell side although I do not need it now to keep warm. My limbs are stiff like a squirrel emerging from hibernation, but my body soon relaxes into the warmth of unaccustomed exertion. Reaching the stile I turn and sit. Looking over the view, just as it was all that time ago when we stopped here and knew we’d come home. We’d found the place we would spend our retirement.
Last time I looked out from here you were next to me, the view familiar and safe.
Now John’s sheep are on the same hillside and he is returning for his breakfast, as he does everyday. The willows below me are still bare of leaves but catkins hang hopefully dredging anything that passes with yellow dust. The hilltops dance in their ever changing colours and our house nestles into the landscape.
The valley is the same one I have watched for twenty years but my perspective has changed, like a photographer who takes shots from a new angle and produces an entirely different view. I still recognize the beauty and tranquility of our valley but I see a path that will be difficult to maintain, elderly neighbours who will soon retire from farming and a lonely house squatting on the hillside. I realize I am ready to leave.
‘I’m sorry my love,’ I whisper to the sky, ‘it’s time for me to move on but all this will come with me, and you’ll still be with me every step of the way.’
As I stand I notice snowbones in the folds of rock below the wall and my grandmother’s words come back. I know that although my grief is thawing it will remain like snowbones in hidden folds of my heart until winter’s darkness comes for me too.