Storytime: Snowflakes.

November 24th, 2010

There was snow, and there were snowflakes.  All over the world, from here to there, coasts to shores, mountains to valleys.  And all of them came from the same place: the House at the End of the North. 
Inside, at the highest room in that house, the cabin-grown-large made from huge logs of glaciated wood, was where Winter sat at his great wooden desk of black pine: a severe, tall, bearded man with the gentle disposition of a corpse and a robe of not-quite-pure white. 
At the moment his sleeves were shoved back over his jagged elbows to leave his cold, bony forearms bare and let his dangling, darting fingers roam free and wild over their task.  At his side on the desk was a colossal glass jar, filled to the brim and just barely above with bulging water; in his hand, an icicle-as-pen, thin and colder than death. 
He was working. 
Here – a dash of the instrument, a single, tiny droplet stolen.  There – to the desk, onto the thin sheet of chilled, clear ice that served him as his canvas.  A nudge, a tickle, and a caress, and it was halfway there already.  Now – a poke, a slip, and a breath, and it was done.  Another snowflake, another little marvel, and as always, unique and perfect.  He blew on it softly, and smiled a warm, cold smile as it blew away through the open window, into the dark and cloudy skies to join its trillions of brothers and sisters.  Far away, the wind howled, the seas froze, the trees groaned, the glaciers rolled. 
Winter was happy, and worked on.  Outside, the snowflakes fell unending. 

Winter sat back at his desk and sighed, stretching his eternally hunched and brittle back.  It was a good morning, here in the place where there were no mornings.  He’d completed seven hundred million snowflakes so far, and he would hope to finish five times as many before the day was done, now that he’d warmed up a bit.  Still, those first few hours of snow were always his most ingenious, he liked to imagine – the burst of creativity running wild before it settled down into a comfortable grind for the remainder of his afternoon.  All well and good.  Imagination had its place, but it could only carry you so far; the rest was pure will. 
He cracked his creviced knuckles, settled in his chair, and prepared to get some really serious snow-crafting done. 
There was a polite knock on the door. 
Winter shook off the figment of his imagination and reached for the jar. 
There was a second knock, a carefully inoffensive rip-rap that wound its way up the narrow, tilting staircases (each crammed with narrower bookcases filled with thinner yet tomes, bound in ice and scribed in sleet) and all the way up to Winter’s study. 
He paused, and listened carefully. 
A third knock echoed through the House at the End of the North, where no one ever visited because no one ever knew. 
Winter got to his feet in such a surprised hurry that he nearly overturned his desk of black pine and shuffled down the stairs, skipping cold, flat steps and tripping over his toes.  The fourth (still polite) knock was just being set in motion as he heaved open the front door, a solid, impassive thing that had once been the heart of an iceberg. 
There was no one there. 
“Excuse me,” said a voice, as polite and mannerly as the knocks, “but are you Grandfather Winter?”
Winter looked farther down.  A very small and fuzzy little animal was sitting on his doorstep. 
“I am no one’s grandfather,” he said.  “And who might you be?”
“I’m a lemming,” said the lemming.  “And I’m sorry to hear that.”
Winter tried to understand this. 
“Why?” he asked, giving up. 
“I have dozens of grandchildren.  I feel sorry for you.”
“They’d be a distraction.”
 “Less than you’d think.”
“Polite, aren’t you?” said winter, stroking his beard with one hand without really noticing.
“I try, Grandfath – Winter.  I make friends, and lots of them.  I am too small to do most things by myself.”  The lemming fidgeted.  “Say, do you mind if I come in?  It’s very cold out here, with no burrow to hide in.”
Winter thought about it.  He’d never had guests before, but he supposed it was the polite thing to do.  Besides, he was well ahead on snowflakes.  He could spare a few minutes. 
“All right,” he said.  “But just for a while.”
The lemming walked in and shivered as the door shut behind him.  Winter’s house was nearly as cold as any snowstorm, the cold that was too heavy to move and simply lay in the air, numbing the skin and drying the eyes as your hair froze solid.  Winter led him to the living room, with chairs made from frost-coated erratics, glacier-borne boulders that had been given to Winter as presents uncounted sums of seasons ago. 
“So,” said Winter, sinking into a thin, thin hollow in the largest of the rocks, “why have you come to my house that no one comes to?”
The lemming curled up on one of the smaller erratics, a stone that normally served as footstool. 
“Well…” he said.  “It’s about the weather.”
“Yes, some of my best work, isn’t it?  Lovely.  I’ve been having so many good ideas the past few weeks that I barely have enough hours in the day to make them.”
The lemming made eye contact with Winter’s feet.  They were bare, and paler than a frightened polar bear.  “It won’t stop snowing.”
Winter tilted his head to the side and frowned.  “I’m sorry, what was the problem?”
“It won’t stop snowing, Grandfa – Winter.  The whole world’s getting too cold and too white for everyone.  Your creativity is killing us.”
“Rubbish,” said Winter.  “The world is better than ever – better off!  All those deformities and misshapen features and all the ugliness ever wrought, all hidden under a smooth, numbing blanket.  No, no, there’s no stopping this, I’m afraid.  You’ll thank me later.”
“Is there no argument to change your mind, Winter?”
“Absolutely not.”  Winter stood up with some difficulty, bones creaking like old, blackened ice, which they were.  “Now, if you’re quite through with your reasons for business, I’d like you to leave now.  I have more snowflakes to shape.”
“If I got outside now, I’ll freeze before an hour’s out.  Please Winter, don’t force me outside.  You invited me inside, I have guest-rights.”
“For those you must eat my food, and you’ve not eaten since you walked in that door.”
The lemming examined the surface of its stony stool carefully.  On it, a patch of lichen had formed, stubbornly clung to life in the face of all reality for untold years, and had just been chipped away at with tiny rodent teeth. 
“Tough and stringy,” apologized the lemming, “but edible.  Forgive me, I was hungry.”
Winter threw up his hands.  “Fine.  Fine!  Badger your way in, take over the house, refuse to leave, sneak right-of-the-guest out from under my nose and empty my pantry if you really must, which of course you will!  Three days is the most that I will give you guest-right, as you well know – and only then if you perform one task each day as gift to me!  Three days and then you leave, whether it’s balmy or frosty outside, whether you are ill or well!  Three, no more!”
“Agreed,” said the lemming.  “And who knows?  Maybe you’ll change your mind by then.”
“Pah!” said Winter.  He stomped upstairs with great force, each footfall tinkling the icicles that littered the ceiling.  
The lemming spent his evening in solitude, alone in the cold dark depths of the House at the End of the North.  Upstairs, all was silent save for the calm softness of falling snow – save Winter.  He listened to the old man’s muttered curses and grumbles – clearly his composure was affecting his craft – and counted the pitter-patter beats of his own little heart.  And after he’d counted off a full hour and a half’s worth of those heartbeats, and Winter’s surliness had died down to a content murmur, he crept over to the window pane – a perfect breath-thin panel of ice Winter had crafted in his younger days, when he was hardy and hale – and peered outside.  A nose bigger than he was peered back at him. 
“Hello,” he whispered to the polar bear, through the glass. 
“Hello, maker-of-friends,” whispered the polar bear very noisily.  Bears can’t help being loud when they speak.  Waiting at seal holes for air the polar bear could make less noise than a passing cloud, but his voice was far too big for anything to be done about it, almost as large and fursome as he was himself.  “How goes it?”
“Well enough.  I have guest-right for three days starting tomorrow.  Grumpy as he is, he won’t break that.”
“Be careful,” warned the bear.  “Changeable and strange is Old Man Winter.  He’ll freeze you solid with a glance and a glare if the fury takes him, and not all the customs of hospitality in the world will save you then.”
“I’m careful,” said the lemming.  “I’ll be cautious.  I’ll be polite.”
“Just so.”  The bear began to turn away, then stopped.  “Are you sure you need nothing?”
The lemming thought carefully.  “Ask the snowy owl to come tomorrow, in the morning.  Ask the fox to stop by the day after, at noon.  The last day, wait outside this door in the evening, and do not move until I ask.  Please.  Those three things are all I’ll need.”
The bear nodded.  “Just so.  Just so.  Good luck, and stay warm.”  He padded away into the white-on-black wilderness and was vanished before a blink had passed. 
The lemming tried to stay warm on the furniture.  It was most difficult. 

Morning came, and down the stairs came Winter, robes clutched tight about himself in the half-sleep that still gripped him as he dawdled to his pantry, feet moving clumsily.  He fumbled to the oven, where the bowl of stew that bubbled there day and night sat, and poured himself a meager bowlful, nose wrinkling at the odour. 
“Is there a problem?” inquired the lemming, who had browsed the lichen from some more of the sitting-room furniture for his breakfast. 
“Nothing to be concerned over,” growled Winter through a gingerly-intaken mouthful of the stuff.  “My breakfast is my own.”
“I’d really like to help, if I could,” said the lemming.  “Consider it my guesting-present for the day.”
Winter set down his spoon.  “The problem is the flavour.  It’s stale.  Turbid.  Old and mouldy.  A real bit and a bite of new taste would spice up my soup for years to come.  But almost the only thing that I haven’t put in the stew yet is the shingles on the roof.  Not a scrap of novelty to be found!  You may yet leave this night if you think you can pay this way.”
“I see,” said the lemming.  “I’ll leave you to your breakfast then.”
Winter growled something unspeakable at the lemming and resumed trying to eat without getting his beard in his mouth, which was much harder than it seemed. 
The stairs were difficult for the lemming, but he persevered, and at last he reached Winter’s workroom.  He beheld the desk, the jar, the icicle-pen, the window, and outside, the snow. 
“Hmm,” said the lemming.  He made his way to the window and called softly three times, then loudly once. 
Down came the snowy owl, tumbling out of the sky in perfect control, plumage all in array and present.  She landed on the windowsill and puffed up all her feathers, half for warmth, half just for the sheer pleasure in her looks. 
“What ho, maker-of-friends?” said the owl. 
“Could you please fetch me a shingle from the roof?” asked the lemming. 
“They are black, bleak ice,” said the owl.  “Most cold to the touch.  Do you have some sort of tool I could use to pull them loose?”
The lemming pointed at the pen.  “Would that do?”
“Cold and more cold, alas,” complained the owl as it snatched up the pen, fluttering for balance on the desktop, “but better this than the other.  Wait but a moment.”
The lemming waited a moment.  While he did, he crept over to the great jar of water, and he urinated in it very carefully and tidily. 
The swish-flap of wings brought the owl back to the windowsill, a cracked and chipped tile clutched in its talons. 
“I’m glad to be rid of it,” she said.  “It nearly burns with its chill, and it snapped the instrument clean in two as I wrested it free, blighted thing.” 
“It can’t be helped,” said the lemming mildly.  “Do not worry.”
“Fare well and good luck – may it aid you in your goals.”
“Thank you,” said the lemming. 

Winter put half the shingle in his stew.  The other half he simply ate, like a piece of frigid toast.  “Delicious,” he proclaimed.  “Magnificent.  I remember hewing these when the world was young, when the waters had come and the fires gone.  They’re nearly as old as the End of the North.  My thanks, guest.”  He departed for his workroom in good humour. 
When he came down again, it was in a much more disturbed mood; brows bunching like thunderclouds.  “My pen has gone missing.”
“Your pen?” asked the lemming.  He was inspecting the bookcases that lined the stairs, pressed near against the walls.  Most of the titles were written in Old Rime, age out of age beyond his understandings or those of any but Winter himself.  “Not irreplaceable, I hope?”
“No, but damned bothersome,” snapped Winter.  “Irksome indeed.  And since there is only one person in the house besides me….”
“I promise to you that I didn’t move your pen,” vowed the lemming, and Winter could hear the truth cooling on his breath as it evaporated into the air.  “Perhaps you misplaced it?”
“All right,” he said grudgingly.  “Perhaps.  I did come downstairs in a hurry last night…maybe it was laid elsewhere.  Bah.  I shall make do without a pen.”
The day went by smoothly enough after that, although Winter complained that eve of difficulty in getting the snowflakes to freeze properly, which he blamed on the lack of his pen.  As the lemming bedded down near the bubbling stewpot – the warmest spot in the House at the End of the North by far – he looked out the window of the kitchen and saw more black than white on the night air. 

The second day dawned, and Winter arrived late for breakfast, and twice as sleepily – thrice he nearly tripped over his own feet on the stairs. 
“Up too late trying to keep up,” he complained.  “Barely doable, trying to make a steady stream of truly fresh flakes under these conditions.  I’d best fall back on my old records.”
“You don’t reuse them, surely?” said the lemming, truly surprised. 
“Never!  Upon my word as the sure cold, there has not been, is not, and will never be a snowflake in this world that is alike to another purely.  But it is much easier to modify an existing design than to create entire.  I believe I will re-examine some of my work from the Cryogenian, draw some inspiration.”  He looked wistful.  “Some of my oldest and greatest work.  It was pole-to-pole you know, or very nearly at least.  So much to do, and it was all done.”  A sigh emerged from him, a pale, whisperly thing.  “Ah, and I thought only last week I was on track to crack that record.  I will make it yet, you hear me?  I shall equal it!”
“Of course,” said the lemming.  “Shall I fetch the tomes for you?”
Winter laughed deep in his thin chest.  “You can’t read, let alone read my eldest writings.  As much as I’m not looking forwards to trawling through all those shelves on all those stairs on but my two knobbly knees, I don’t believe you can do it.”
“I can and will, if it would help you,” said the lemming.  “I’ll be back before your stew is through.”  Winter laughed long and loud as his spoon entered his mouth, with messy results. 
The lemming left the pantry, but travelled to the back door rather than to the stairways, where it quickly scraped a small, short path under the door, there to be met by a sniffling dark nose with sharp pale teeth beneath it. 
“Well met again, friendly little furball,” said the arctic fox.  “Tell me, what do you plan?”
“I’d like it if you could help me find a book, or maybe two.  No more than three at most,” said the lemming. 
A fox’s laugh is a sharp yip-yap.  “I can’t read any more than you can!”
“You can smell, and smell much better than I,” said the lemming.  “Can you smell the coldest and oldest?  The ones whose pages are the faintest with Winter’s scent?”
“I can do that,” proclaimed the fox confidently.  “But I’ll need a good strong smell to get a base from, something he uses constantly.  A bit of his robe, maybe?”
The lemming thought carefully.  “No, I’ve got a better idea.  He has a desk upstairs, one he sits at for hours.  A good piece of that should do, one we can bring with us so his smell stays sure in your head.”
The fox wrinkled its muzzle.  “Mocking my skills, are we, little furball?” it said. 
“Never.  But we need to be fast.  Winter’s breakfast is already half-done, if I’m any judge.”
With that they nipped upstairs as quick as sticks, the lemming riding the much swifter fox, who found the stairs a nuisance rather than a labour. 
“A piece from right here, where he makes a habit of resting his hand, would that do?” inquired the lemming of the fox, as they stood at the desk.
It sniffed.  “Yes, yes, perfect.  Stand back and watch for my teeth!”  Snip-snap and out came a splintered shard of the black pine, then it was down the stair and up and down the bookcases, all at a trit-trot pace that the lemming found rather too bracing for his liking. 
“Here,” said the fox, stopping at a case squeezed in and a bit behind of the others, hunched back like the smallest bear at a whale carcass.  “The second shelf from the bottom, the middle pair.  Need a hand with them?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” said the lemming, eyeing the volumes with unease.  “Besides, I think I just heard him belch his last downstairs.  You’d better run.”
“Good luck – for us all,” called the fox, and it was gone.  Winter found the lemming on the stairs some five minutes later, still struggling to surmount the third step. 
“Well,” he said.  “Maybe not before my stew is done after all!  Nevertheless I am generous, and will count this as your guest-gift.”  He scooped up the books and clutched them to his chest, coddling them.  “Ah, ah yes!  Oh, this will make it all flow again, you’ll see!”
With that, he fled upstairs in haste, leaving the exhausted lemming to make his way back down to his stewpot nesting place alone. 

That evening, Winter came downstairs to pour over his books, nursing a sore palm. 
“Is there a problem?” asked the lemming. 
“A splinter on my desk,” said Winter, sucking at the cut.  “It took less than a second to shoot in and more than an hour to mend halfway properly, and by then my efforts were shot.  Another setback.  Bah!  Tell me, was this your doing?” 
“You have my promise that I did not damage your desk,” said the lemming. 
“Hrrmph,” said Winter.  “Neatly said.  But still, all too many setbacks these past days, truth or no!”  He stroked the tomes with care, blue-tipped fingers on a white surface.  “With these…with these I’ll be caught up soon enough.  You have my thanks large, lemming.”  But still he thought that he would be glad to see the back of the rodent come tomorrow night.  Trouble seemed to follow him around, and he’d seen a wet paw-print on his back door, like that of a fox. 
“A word,” said Winter, as he rose to take to his bed.  “I’ve had a chance to think up a guest-gift for you in advance, for once, so you needn’t be in such a rush to find one on the morrow.  Your task will be to bar all entrance to my dwelling.  I must repair and replace some of my instruments, and I don’t want any disturbances.  You must allow no one in, understood?”
The lemming thought. 
“Yes.  Understood.”
Winter slept soundly, chuckling to himself.  The lemming had a more restless night, head whirling in and out of wild dreams to crossbreed them with worried ideas.  He looked out the window, and was comforted by the clearness of the night sky. 

The lemming woke to find Winter risen early, already finished his breakfast and busily opening up the trapdoor that sank into the living room floor, eyes gleaming and teeth bared with the enjoyment of good, productive work. 
“Up so late, are you?” he called out, and cackled.  “Come!  Come!  Come and keep watch at the door!  Remember, allow no visitors, passerbys, foes, or friends to enter, not as long as I am busy, is it clear?” 
“Perfectly,” said the lemming. 
Winter went below, chuckling all the while.  Down there in the white, long caves of his cellar he kept his supplies of frozen number and his carving tools, laid out neatly and firmly in rows upon rows.  He would mend his desk today it, smooth it careful and neat.  Perhaps later, when his guest had left, he would turn to the all-important tasks of replacing his pen and changing his water (how lacking it seemed lately!) from the long and lonely wastes outside the House at the End of the North, but for now, a chore closer to home would do.  So much to complete later, outside his home, but how sweeter it all would be when it was complete, how fine it would be to be back on track.  And one of the bits of celebrating he’d thought over last night that had sent him to sleep smiling was adding some lemming to his stewpot the moment the guestship was over.  The shingles weren’t the only only thing he’d never included in it. 
The lemming waited for him to move about downstairs, listened to his crunching footfalls as they faded away into the distance.  He smiled a little then (it’s hard to tell sometimes with rodents, unless they really do grin, which he was), and settled down to wait.  Winter came back upstairs three times, each cautious, shifty-eyed, darting suspicious glances, fetching something-or-other that he’d forgotten, or so he said. 
“Is it all fine?” he asked. 
“No sign of trouble?”
“No visitors?”
Each time, the lemming replied the same: “All is well.”  And each time, Winter grew less cautious, and stayed down below longer. 
The lemming peeked out the window after the third time, searching the snowbanks outside.  He spotted a black speck in a snowdrift that just could’ve been a very large nose.  He made haste to the trapdoor, braced himself square and set against it, and heaved mightily.  It moved not so much as one jot, strain though he did.  Panting, he nearly gave up in despair… but then his eyes alighted upon the stewpot once more.  The climb up was difficult, exhausted as he was, but he had enough energy left to knock it from its precarious perch, sending it toppling to the floor with a great sloppy CLANG that echoed through the House at the End of the North like a giant’s shout. 
“Help!” called the lemming as loud and hard as he could.  “HELP!  Intruder!  Invader in the home!  Teeth at the burrow’s mouth!” 
Deep down below Winter froze in shock, but he was moving again before he knew it, tools falling aside, legs rolling, thundering along with the force of an ice-laden gale above the seas. 
“Help!” called the lemming one last time for good measure, and then he rushed to the door and shoved it open with one shoulder, nearly popping loose his leg.  “HELP!” he called again, into the snows.  The bear rose from his drift in surprise. 
“What worries you?” he asked.  “Has he rejected your friendship?”
“Winter!  Winter has gone mad!  Quick, shut him in, shut him in, or he’ll freeze us both where we stand!”
The bear stuck its nose in through the door and balked.  “Mad?  Surely…” but his words were left unfinished in the roar and fury of Old Man Winter as he stormed up from his cellar and saw the bear looming over his threshold, robes aflying, hands grasping, arms spread out as if to grab the world’s throat and choke it close to nothing. 
Orcas!” cursed the bear, and it grabbed the door and slammed it shut, grabbed the logs around the door and pulled them shut, and tore over the whole face of the house, burying the iceberg’s heart in a little avalanche of iced timber.  A howl that could chew bones rattled from inside. 
“The back door, the back door!” cried the lemming, and the bear made haste.  Even with its long legs and passionate fear, Winter was the fiercer, and it only just managed to reach the door as he set hand to latch.  He shoved and the bear shoved and the door wobbled and then the lemming was there, racing across the snow, tackling the door with all his might.  That was just enough to make Winter flinch, just a bit, just a hint, as the latch collided with his wounded palm, and that was just enough to let the bear slam the door shut.  By the time Winter’s fingers grasped the latch once again, there was a half-ton of broken timber and icy debris between the door and the open air. 
His cry ripped open the sky for miles – he was sealed in his own home, bereft of the tools of his craft, and his meal had escaped.  In all the world there was no call as harsh and furiously hateful as his, and you can still hear its echo today in any cold place where the wind blows cruel. 
The bear shivered mightily, a chill overcoming it even through its fur.  “Mad indeed.  Mad altogether!  What will we do then?  Who will foster the snows for us all if he is locked away?  Our lands will shrink instead of grow.  You have pled our case poorly, little maker-of-friends.  Tell me, did he take offence at your offers of friendship?  Did we presume too much in requesting the expansion of the ice?  Did we push him too hard for more?  What drove him to this state?”
“I believe,” said the lemming, whiskers twitching one at a time, “that there can be too much of anything.  Even a good thing.  Whether weather or company, such is true.”
The bear thought about this.  By the time it had realized both that it was very angry and why, the lemming was safely away down the snow hole.  It had no choice but to walk home to the owl and the fox, all the while watching the air clear of snow bit by bit. 
“The lemming tricked us,” it told them.  “And we must punish him, and all of his friends and relations.”  This they agreed, and seethed bitterly as they watched the snows draw back, pulling back closer to the House at the End of Winter, leaving the rest of the world to grow softer and warmer. 

Winter was angry, and sullen, and he worked but little and slow, with sore hands and poor tools on a growling belly. 
But outside, far away on the tundra, lemmings watched the flowers bloom. 


“Snowflakes” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.

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