Brother Winter

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Quill 186 Brother Winter Image 1 Final“Who is he?”

Father chuckled, but I knew I must say something, for Ida had asked the question in earnest.

“He isn’t anybody,” I said. “He’s just a snowman.”

“Is that right?” Father asked, glancing sideways at me.  “I daresay, Brother Winter here might have been somebody…once.”

I smiled, for I knew a story was coming.  I had heard most of Father’s stories many times before, when I was a boy.  So when he told them to Ida, I liked to just listen and watch the expressions change on her face.  But when I looked at the snowman we three had just built together, I knew that Father was about to tell a tale I had never heard before.  So I sat down on the log beside my sister, as rapt as she was.  There was snow on the ground and sunlight all about us.  Father raised an arm toward the snowman.

“Careful, children.  Do not become too enchanted by the snow.  Let me tell you the tale of one who did.”

*****

A little boy, neither wicked nor particularly virtuous, once lived in a little village, neither poor nor particularly prosperous.  The village was in a land where snow never fell.  One day, the boy’s father declared that they must move far away.  The family had become well-to-do and there was no house in their little village that satisfied the ambitions of the boy’s father and mother.

It was summer when they came to a bustling and rich town near a lake.  They bought a charming little house and were happy.  When fall came, the leaves turned red and gold, and floated down from the trees as the children walked to and from their schoolhouse.

Then one morning there came a chill such as the boy had never felt before.  When he complained of it to his mother, she laughed merrily and reminded him that his father had warned him they were going to a land where winter truly came. Sometimes it would be like a creeping and biting beast.  Other times it would be majestic and serene.  Her laughter faded as she dressed him in coats, scarves, and mittens before sending him out.  She warned him to stay warm else he would not withstand the winter.

The boy dreaded the coming of winter, for it was still days away, yet he had never known such cold in his life.  It crept under his sheets at night.  It gripped at his nose, his ears, and his toes.  His father kept three fires burning in the house, and still the cold did not retreat.  It wrapped around his feet when he carefully stepped out of bed in the morning.  It seeped through the cracks in his clothes, like the gap between his mitten and sleeve.  His face ached.  He thought his very bones ached.  He was indeed as miserable as his mother and father feared he would be.

Then one morning, his mother woke him.

It was a rest day.  The children rested from the schoolhouse and the men and women rested from their trades.  His mother told him it had snowed through the night.  She bundled him up and took him outside.

The boy carefully stepped out into the snow.  He was still cold until the morning sun rose higher and higher into the clear cloudless sky.  But then he saw the town covered in snow.  The roofs of houses dripped with snow as a cake drips with sweet icing.  Caps of snow lay on the fence posts and blankets of snow draped over the trees and bushes.  Whirls of frost in the shapes of fern leaves decorated the windowpanes of his house.  He had walked upon solid ground all his life.  Now as he walked in the snow and his feet sunk in, he wobbled and fell.  He had fallen on solid ground before as well.  So it came as a welcome surprise when the soft snow caught him.  He laughed and stood up and brushed off the chunks of snow and ice that clung to him.  His mother warned him to beware of the melting ice.  But the boy was so delighted by the snow, he thought he could hardly feel the cold.

He watched the other children scoop up the snow, pack it into the shapes of balls between their hands, and throw the balls of snow at each other laughing, running, slipping, and screaming.  None of the grown folk were stopping them either.  Not as they would if the children were throwing sticks or stones in malice.  The snowballs were launched in merriment and good will.

The boy joined in the frolicking.  He played all through the day and did not come home until his mother called him in for supper.

That evening it snowed again.  The boy sat by his window watching the flakes drift down from the sky, watching them twirl in a stray chill breeze, watching them land upon the earth, tiny flakes, bit by bit, forming a thick layer of snow.

***

The next morning he woke early, for he wished to walk slowly to the schoolhouse, savoring the sight of the snow.  The schoolmaster let the children romp in the snow during their midday rest.

The boy played for a while, but then he began to study the snow.  He held a snowball in his hand and gazed at it.  The ball was solid, but the chill wetness on his glove belied its liquid nature.  It was another sunny afternoon, and the ball threw off a misty vapor that belied the snow’s airy nature.  The boy removed his glove and held the snowball in his hands.  As it melted, his hand began to feel as if it were burning.  The boy marveled for he believed he had discovered that all the elements were contained in snow.  He glanced about and wondered why none else were so enamored of the snow.  Perhaps because it was abundant, they did not find it so precious.

The boy became obsessed with snow, possessed by it.  At first the grown folk found it charming.  While the other children tramped about in the snow, the boy would treat it carefully and gently.  No longer did he build snowballs.  He built bricks, then walls, then little ramparts, and towers.  Sometimes the other children would topple his walls and towers.  Sometimes they would help him build them.  The boy always laughed when the snow came tumbling down.  And he always stayed serene when the towers of snow rose.

At home, his mother would sometimes hear him singing a song to himself.

“Snow!  Snow!  From within it glows.
I will build a castle and fortress out of snow.”

“Snow!  Snow!  Little do they know.
Deeper than the oceans are the mysteries of snow.”

She was the first to note the changes in him.  Everyone’s skin grew pale during the sunless months of winter.  But her son’s skin grew deathly pale.  One day, she came upon him sitting in the snow outside with no coat or mittens on.  No boots were upon his bare feet.  He skin was cold and had turned a pale translucent blue.  She wailed for she thought he had wandered outside and frozen to death.  But as she clutched him and as his father came running out of the house, the boy came awake.  When he saw how distraught his mother was, he laughed and told her she was silly to worry, for nothing in the snow could hurt him.  He lay his hands on her cheeks and kissed her forehead, and she gasped at how cold his lips and fingers were.

The boy’s mother became convinced that some malicious snow spirit had cursed her child, woven a spell about him, and ensnared him.  She feared it was claiming him, marking him, and changing him.  She tried to keep him indoors.  She tried to keep him warm.

She was right to think her son was changing.  But she was wrong about how.  There was no spirit.  It was the snow itself.  The snow had no will of its own.  But snow is a primal force and so it is full of powers both terrifying and enchanting.  While that enchantment lays on the surface for most, for a few, the enchantment can seep into the heart and the soul.

The boy was jolly and the boy was serene.  So long as it snowed, the boy was happy.  He told his mother one day that he feared the departing of winter.  That even as others longed for spring and bright colors, he longed for the world to remain as white as winter and as cold and soft as snow.

“If winter departs, so shall I,” he said to his mother one day.

***

That winter was a long one.  Many in the town began to fear and to suspect that it was the snow boy’s doing, for that is what they called him.  He was by then as pale as the snow he loved.  Even his dark hair had turned a frosty white and his eyes had turned from brown to icy blue.

Some of the townsfolk met in secret and spoke of taking the boy and carrying him far away, up into the mountains, where winter and snow could abide all the year without harm to anyone.  They did not want to harm the boy, for he was a son of their town.  But they wished for the winter to end.  The boy ate nothing but the snow he loved so much.  But the townsfolk needed for the winter to end, so they could grow food.

The townsfolk did not understand.  His mother and father did not understand.  The boy did not carry winter with him.  Winter and snow came to him and nurtured him so he could live.  But the boy did not know how it came to him.  He could not will it.  The boy feared that winter and snow may not be able to follow if he went too far away.

Yet he agreed to leave the town.  His mother and father could not go with him, for they would soon have another child to care for, a brother or sister whom the boy might never know.  The boy’s schoolmaster agreed to lead the boy away from town.  A few of the townsfolk volunteered as escorts.

On the journey, the boy’s schoolmaster noticed that the boy’s good cheer was waning, as was his health.  The farther from the town they traveled, the greener the world around them became.  The boy began to sleep more and more each day.  The schoolmaster asked after the boy’s health on evening.

The boy merely answered, “We are traveling too fast.”

So the schoolmaster convinced the wagon to stop when they reached a stone ruins.  The ruins were once a watchtower built in the days when the land was carved up into smaller sovereignties, each claimed by sovereigns who met in never-ending skirmishes.

The night was chill and in the morning, the wagon driver found that one of the horse’s had thrown a shoe and may have suffered injury.  He tended to the horse, and the boy and his escorts remained in the watchtower for just a few nights more.

One night, the schoolmaster saw the glow of lightning in the dark clouds above.  The air grew suddenly colder.  He and the few others who had come to escort the boy gathered themselves and the horses into the shelter of the watchtower, for it would snow that night.

They built a fire.  So though it was cold, the cold could be born.  All slept restlessly.  The boy lay far from the fire.  The schoolmaster watched him and dozed off.

When next the schoolmaster woke, he woke to a strange and comfortable warmth.  Though snow streamed softly across the sky, the sky was clear and filled with stars and the frozen glow of a half moon.  Atop a broken rampart, the schoolmaster saw a figure move.  The figure skipped and twirled in a joyful-seeming dance.  The schoolmaster could not see from so far away, but he thought it must be the boy.  The warmth he felt lulled him back to sleep.

***

The schoolmaster woke, shivering.  The tower was covered in snow and the chill of it had reached him at last.  The other escorts had already woken and they were standing in the middle of the tower hall, gripping their hats in their hands.

The schoolmaster rose and went to stand beside them.

“I heard him singing and crying out last night,” one of the other escorts said. “’Snow!  Snow!  Let them live!  Then to you my life I’ll give.’”

“We should have frozen to death here last eve’n,” another said.  “But for him.”

They lowered their heads, but the schoolmaster could only stare.  The boy lay there before them.  He lay in a coffin made of ice on a bed of snow.  The schoolmaster stared and thought he saw the boy’s chest rise and fall.

“He breathes!” the schoolmaster cried out.  “We must rescue him!”

He rushed toward the coffin.  He felt the cold grip him, by his arms at first, just as a man would grip him.  Then as a beast would grip him, it struck his legs, his gut, and his chest.  Still as stone he became and twice as cold.  As the others watched in horror, the schoolmaster turned to ice.

The other escorts fled.  They returned to the town and told their tale.  The boy’s mother and father grieved.  Not only did they grieve for their son’s death, but for abandoning him.  In his despair, the boy’s father sent his wife and daughter away into the care of others.  He visited the watchtower.  He saw his son in the coffin.  He saw the frozen schoolmaster standing like a sculpture made of ice.  Though the forest beyond was alive with spring, the watchtower abided ever in winter.  The father did not go close, but he too thought his saw the slightest movement of his son’s chest.  He clung to the desperate hope that his son was only slumbering, possessed by the powers of winter.  He made a desperate plan.  One by one, golden coin by golden coin, he tossed his entire fortune toward the coffin of ice.

The treasure froze as it passed within the influence of the icy coffin.  He kept but one bag of gold.  With that one bag, he hired knights, soldiers, and lances to try and reach his son.  He hired mystics, potion-brewers, and spell-casters to try and free his son.  The rest of the treasure was to be their enticement.  It would be their reward for saving his son.  Many ended up like the schoolmaster, frozen statues surrounding the boy in his coffin as if they were his mourners.

The boy was indeed still alive.  He grew older as the years bore on.  But forever frozen he would stay.  Unless some hero came his way.  But none ever came who could free the snow-kissed lad.

Soon his true story was lost.  The rumors of the haunted ever-frozen watchtower became the legend of the sleeping winter spirit in the watchtower.

*****

“Ah, but do not fear, children,” Father said.  “The boy’s end was not as sad as that.  For he was only sleeping in that watchtower.  Only sleeping until winter came to the land.  Then his spirit would wake and wander forth.  His father never knew it, for the boy’s frozen form remained in the coffin.

“The first time the boy wandered forth was when he went to find his little sister, so far away.  He could only find her when the snow fell in the mountains where she had been spirited away.  His sister was no child of winter.  She was made of warmth and sunlight.  He would visit her each winter, until she was grown enough to make snowballs.  He whispered in her ear and taught her how to make walls, ramparts, and towers.

“Then one day, he directed her to make the shape of a boy.  This she did, and he possessed the snow boy and was able to move about and play with her and the other children.  They did not fear him, for he was jolly when all the world was filled with snow.  And he kept away the cold from the children so long as he was with them.”

“He was always sad when winter faded and melted his snow form.  So was his sister sad, though she did not know she was his sister.  When his spirit returned to his true form, the form that lay slumbering in the watchtower, he lamented the frozen heroes he saw surrounding him.  When winter came, he was so full of merriment, he always leapt away and forgot them.  But when he returned, he always saw them and was reminded that he should not allow any to come close, for the place where his body lay was cursed.  Snow could not be spiteful.  But it was enchanted and it guarded him from all, those who meant ill, but also those who meant well.  Before he returned to his slumbering body, he would haunt the woods around the watchtower and make certain that no one came near.

“After a while, even he forgot who he had been, for his body grew old and died, and only his spirit remained, still haunting the watchtower.  It slumbered all year long until winter came.  When the first snow fell, his spirit would wake.

“Every winter, he was born in the snowmen built to honor him.  Folk in the early days would make snow boys at the beginning of winter and snowmen at the end of winter.  Every winter, he would grow up.  He would grow old, and even fat.”  Father pointed to our round snowman.  “And then he would die when spring came.  Only to be born again with the next winter.”

I glanced at my sister Ida.  I was going to joke that she looked a bit blue, but her expression was stricken and fearful.  She eyed our snowman with suspicion and sadness.  Tears dripped down her ruddy cheeks.

Suddenly, she leapt toward me and gripped me in a fierce hug.  Her strength surprised me.  She pulled away and her eyes were just as fierce, the tears now gone.

“Don’t let the snow take you,” she said.

“Don’t worry, little love,” Father said.  He crossed his arms and looked at our snowman.  “He may not remember who he was, but his nature remembers what he was.  He would never take a brother from his sister.  Or a sister from her brother.”

“Father,” I said.  “Whatever happened to all that treasure in the watchtower?  All that gold?”

“And all the poor heroes turned into ice?” Ida asked.

I wondered why Father would tell such a sad and troubling tale after we had enjoyed such a merry day.  He stood silently for a moment, then answered.

“Some legends say that while the first snowfall can wake him for the winter, there is only one thing that will wake Brother Winter from his eternal slumber for good.  If all the children in all the realms all laugh together, then will he be freed.  Then will he be reunited with his family, those who lost him.  And so too would be freed his father’s treasure, and the poor heroes who tried to save him.”

“That would be a wondrous day, Father,” Ida said.

“It would indeed,” Father replied.  “But for today, the laughter of one child is enough for me.”  He reached down and tickled Ida, and she began to laugh and squirm.

I smiled and looked at our snowman.  The sun glinted off one of his stone eyes as he began to melt.

 

Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel

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