Our neighbour died yesterday. We’ve lived next to her for seven years, but she’d lived in the building next door most of her adult life. Since we moved here she’s watched over our comings and goings, our snow shovelling, guests arriving and leaving, groups of us out at night watching the northern lights. We’ve noticed her sitting in her kitchen, collecting her post, in the garden with her dog, or standing on the verandah by her front door.
When we first arrived at our new home we told her we loved the snow. She gave us a knowing look, which we later understood meant, just wait until you’ve been shovelling it for a few years. She had a sharp sense of humour and we weren’t spared, but we appreciated her digs and jibes. Sometimes we joined her in her kitchen where she gave us coffee with lumps of fatty cheese. Most of our meetings were out in the snow, talking over the fence.
It feels very empty here now without her. Staring into the middle distance over breakfast this morning I saw a flash of black in the snow hill opposite. I looked but couldn’t see anything – just the flecked birch trunks deep in the snow. Then there was that black point again, and in front of it a slither of white fur – it was an ermine rampaging around. Perfectly camouflaged in the winter, being perfectly white and just that speck of black at the end of its tail, like the specks on the birch bark. I watched its agile romp around the snow pile.
I hadn’t seen an ermine for 12 years. Once every 12 years then – a rare sighting. I think of royal fur, perfect white trim with black dots, and royal privilege. I think of an animal that’s special. I felt lucky to have seen it. I read, however, that ermine exist in large numbers all over the northern hemisphere – so they aren’t rare at all. I also read that they are regarded as pests. I was horrified to learn that these innocent looking creatures are ruthless hunters and could be eating our local arctic hares. Apparently they bite the much larger hare in the neck to kill them, and the hare dies of shock before it gets eaten. I no longer felt lucky to have seen an ermine.
Our neighbour loved hares, and she cut off old bushes and hung them above the snow for the hares to nibble at over winter. She also fed all the birds with hanging feeders from the tree between our two buildings. She fed small birds, medium sized birds, and many large, unhygienic pigeons. We weren’t so keen on the pigeons. When we challenged her about this she said, ‘well, they’ve got to eat’.
She would have forgiven the ermine for attacking hares, because, after all, it has to eat. And now in her honour, so will I.