Poppies In The Snow
from the peg he turned to his son Fraser, sitting at the kitchen table, shoulders hunched over a mug of tea.
“Ah’ll away to the fields then.”
Fraser didn’t acknowledge his father’s words. He sat there, unmoving, staring into the steaming brown liquid.
“Will ye no be joinin’ me the day? It’d dae ye good, getting oot in the fresh air fur a while. Ah could dae wi’ the help, son.”
“Naw, Da. No the day.”
“Ach, suit yer bluidy self.” Sandy rammed the tweed cap on his bald head and made his way out to the fields where his cattle stood, snorting like dragons in the cold morning air. His leg protested as he ploughed through the snow. It had been eight – no, nearly nine years since the wall he had been building collapsed and shattered his left leg. He had been lucky not to lose it, the doctors had said. Lucky? What did those white collared gents know about luck for a man who had to work outdoors in all weather. For him it was nothing but bad luck, same as he’d always had. If he’d been lucky he’d have been killed in the accident. That way Fraser would have had to stay at home. Going off to war wouldn’t have been an option for his only child and he’d have been saved from whatever it was that had hurt him so much.
Sandy leaned against the dry stane dyke that marked the perimeter of his land. He remembered when Fraser was just a young boy and had come to work in the farm with him. He’d loved being with his Da, lifting the tatties from the fertile soil, eating the bread and cheese Mary, Sandy’s wife, had brought then at dinner time. Sandy taught him the things his father had passed on in his childhood; how to manage the beasts, how to tell when the tatties were ready; to know the days when the season turned. He’d hoped Fraser’s blood belonged to the land, just as had his and his father’s before him.
But Fraser was always restless. He’d reminded Sandy of the hawks that soared overhead, always searching, never happy to stay in one place for too long. It seemed like only yesterday that Fraser had come to his dad to tell him he was volunteering.
“Ye cannae go, son.”
“How no, Da?”
“Whit am ah gonnae dae here withoot ye?”
“Ye’ll dae fine. Ye can aye get a laddy frae the village to help at tattie howking. Ah need tae go, Da. Ah huv tae dae ma duty.”
Duty. What did he know about duty? Sandy felt sure it was the glory Fraser was after, the excitement of battle, the desire to leave the farm behind. Duty was just the excuse he gave.
Stiffly, Sandy straightened and made his way to the barn to get some turnips to put out for the beasts, his left leg dragging a trench behind him. Fraser had come home three weeks ago and in all that time he hadn’t so much as poked his nose out the door. His son had returned to the nest and it seemed nothing Sandy could say or do would make him leave it again.
The barn was a warm respite from the bitter cold. Sandy tossed some turnips into the wheelbarrow, pausing to rub some heat into his withered leg and, pushing the door closed behind him he retraced his steps back to the field. The wheel followed the furrow his leg had drilled on the way there, but it was still hard work. At the kitchen window he saw Fraser holding his arms tight around himself just like Mary had used to hold him when he was wee. Daft boy! He thought. He’s a grown man. Just as well his mither isn’t here to see this. He turned his back on his son and made his way across the snow-covered ground to his cattle. The cows lunged hungrily at the turnips Sandy tossed on the churned up slush.
From the woods south of his farm Sandy heard the crack of a rifle. Bloody poachers he thought. Another shot rang out and a hawk fell from the sky, landing in an unmoving heap among the turnips. Sandy shouldered his way through the cows. He grabbed the dead bird, a kestrel, by the legs and made his way back to the cottage. As he limped on his way, drops of blood fell from the kestrel’s chest making a trail of poppies in the snow. Sandy saw Fraser still at the window, watching his approach. Suddenly, Fraser tore out the front door and fell on his knees at his father’s feet. His shoulders shook and he moaned quietly as he tried to scoop up the bloodied snow.
“Nae mair! Nae mair blood!” he wailed. Sandy watched in shock. He didn’t know what to do. He dropped the hawk and tried to pull Fraser onto his feet but he fought against his father and Sandy, slipping in the icy snow, fell to join his son instead.
Awkwardly, he put an arm around his son’s shivering body. “Will ye no tell me whit’s wrang wi’ ye?”
Fraser, not lifting his eyes from the snow, drew an icy hand over his face to wipe away his tears.
“The blood, Da. There was so much blood. I was in the trenches, fightin’ wi’ the others when Stan – he was my pal – stuck his head up, just to see where the enemy fire was coming from. Oh, Da, it was awful.”
Fraser looked up and into his father’s eyes for the first time since he came home. “His eyes were still open, and the blood was running down his forehead and over his eyes until it looked like he was crying blood. It was everywhere – his head, his jacket – it made puddles in the mud.” He gently fingered the feathers of the dead bird. “I couldn’t go on. I just crouched down where I was and put my hands over my head and tried to keep out the noise. The bullets, the explosions, the screaming……”
Sandy pulled his son closer to him and roughly stroked Fraser’s hair as he sobbed into his chest. Fraser carried scars that were deeper and more profound than anything Sandy could know. He thought Fraser had been lucky to come home in one piece. It seemed he knew as much about luck as his own doctors had years ago. He pulled himself up and put his arm around his son’s still shaking shoulders. Slowly, they made their way back to the cottage where they would start to heal together.
In the field the cows carried on eating and a lone hawk circled in the grey skies above.
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