The old man stood with a length of coiled rope around his shoulder and spat into the dust. The sky was cold and clear. He looked at the sky every day but the clouds still avoided him.
“Giovanni, what’s the latest?”
In November they said early December, then it was going to be mid-December, then Christmas.”
“No one really knows, papa.”
“No one knows?” The old man spat into the dust once again. He took a leather pouch from his jacket pocket and started to roll himself a cigarette. “My father could tell what the weather was going to do, a week before it did it.”
“You know as well, papa.”
The old man flicked a match. He scuffed his boots in the dust, kicking up a little cloud.
“I did once.” His rummy eyes looked up again at the clear blue sky. “This year is different.”
From their lofty position on the lower slopes of the mountain, where the pastures lay brown and dry, they could see the distant Monte Rosa. Even from that distance they could see its barren slopes; only its vague glaciers flickered white in the sun.
“There’s no tourism yet. Tourism’s suffering and we’re suffering with it, Giovanni.”
“The snow will come papa, it has to.”
“Do you think? When was the last time it rained, son?”
“It drizzled for a couple of hours, Giovanni. It hasn’t rained in anger since July.” He flicked his head in a backwards movement. “Those woods are a tinderbox.”
Giovanni nodded his head. “The weather channel put the area on high alert for forest fire risk.”
The old man crushed his cigarette carefully under his heel. “It’s about the only thing the weather channel has got right this year.” He lifted the rope from his shoulder and placed it on the old trunk of a walnut tree that served as a chopping block. He nodded down the slope. “I want to get that fence in the bottom field repaired. If the snow does come at least the animals will be contained.”
This last comment fell like an axe blow between the men. They’d already lost a few animals, sickened by the drought conditions; they couldn’t afford to lose any more, there dwindling finances couldn’t take it. They’d lost the annual orders from the surrounding ski resorts, whose slopes were bare and car parks were empty. In his 72 years the old man had never known anything like it. He was almost glad his wife had passed away the previous spring and didn’t have to see what the farm had become. His son brought him back to the present.
“Five months ago we were enjoying a beautiful summer and everyone said we’d pay for it, that the winter would come early and the snow would be heavy.”
“Yeah, and I was one of them, telling the same thing to anyone who’d listen. Now I’m just the foolish sheep farmer who can’t tell the direction of the wind even if I wet my finger and hold it in the air.”
“Come on papa. This year’s caught everyone out. It’s not just down to us anymore. Think of all those satellites out there and they still can’t give us an accurate forecast.”
“Any farmer worth his salt should be able to mind his own, without the need for satellites or weather channels, son; just like my father and grandfather used to do. Maybe the people are right; maybe I am just a foolish sheep farmer that prophesises ‘red sky at night’.”
“Enough papà. Come on, let’s get the fence fixed so I can go to Cristina’s with that firewood.”
Giovanni looked into his father’s face. This autumn had taken everything out of him. His face was drawn and his eyes sunken and dark-ringed. The quick smile was no longer there, replaced by a stare which admitted defeat.
“We can do the fence later, son. Take the wood over to Cristina; if her father’s down in town, you’ll have to unload yourself, it’ll take time.”
Giovanni considered this. It was true. All the while the weather held, and it looked like holding for a fair while still, the bottom field fence wasn’t a priority. The nights were cold and Cristina needed the wood. He took the pick-up keys from his jacket pocket.
“Get some rest papa. I’ll be back in a couple of hours, three at the most.”
“Give my regards to Cristina and her father, if he’s there. I guess you’re right, I could use a little rest.”
“There’s nothing more any of us can do papa, at least until this weather shows signs of breaking.” He got into the pick-up truck and the electric motor hummed as the window rolled down. “Get some rest papa. How about we go into town for a couple of beers this evening; it’s been ages since we’ve done that.”
“About the last time we saw any money coming through the door, son.”
The truck engine revved into life and Giovanni waved through the open window. His father watched as the brake lights flashed once before the car drove out onto the road.
With a final spit into the dust, the old man looked once more at the sky. With his head bowed, he heaved the coil of rope onto his shoulder and walked slowly to the still-empty barn.