The Why Winter Challenge

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“Why does there have to be winter?”

The asker was my little niece, all bundled up in black-and-silver fleece blankets.  Her favorite colors.  She didn’t ask the question just out of curiosity.  She was frowning slightly.  Winter had swallowed up her favorite season, autumn.  (The season to which her only objection was, “why does there have to be so much orange?”).

I smiled.  “Do you want the scientific explanation or the non-scientific explanation?”

“Both.”

“What if I don’t know both?”

“Which one do you know?”

“Uh, well, actually…”

I glanced around the living room.  My niece was sitting on the sofa, snuggled between her parents.  Various cousins and a few of their kids were arrayed on the various other chairs, lounges, and seats we’d dragged into the room, so we could all be closer to the steady fire burning in the fireplace.

“I know why,” one of my cousins said, and she took a sip from her steaming mug of hot buttered rum and leaned forward.

“Whatever she’s going to say, it’s not the real story,” a second cousin said.  “I happen to know the real story.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked.  “How is that?  Did you live through it?  Are you an ancient being who secretly joined our family because you got tired of being lonely?”

My cousin quirked his eyebrows.  “Maybe.”

My niece giggled, prompting my sister to glance between the three of us who’d spoken.  “I for one would love to hear all three of these stories.”  She looked pointedly at me, even though I hadn’t offered up a story.

“Let’s make it four,” one of my cousin’s kids said.  She rubbed her hands together.  “And let’s make it a contest.”  She looked at my niece.  “You pick the winner, since you asked the question.”

She then turned to me, this kid I’d only just met that evening.  “And since you were the first to respond, you should tell the first story.”

My eyes went so wide so suddenly that a shock of cold struck them and I blinked.

“No,” a merciful voice said.  My niece’s voice.  “I want the best to go last.”

I smiled a grateful smile at her, not knowing if she was old enough to get it.  She grinned at me, bobbed her legs a few times on the sofa cushion and pointed to the cousin drinking hot buttered rum.

My cousin obliged, setting aside her drink, raising her brow, and taking a deep breath.

She began her story.

~*~

They say a being from a far distant land came to our world, fell toward it actually, and crashed.  Our world was different then.  No life inhabited it, because it was a just an orb of spinning crystalline debris.  In crashing, the being passed through this debris and was torn by it, split into parts, four parts, for the four ancient elements.  And it changed our world forever.  Fires began to burn, melting and fusing the debris.  Waters flooded the debris field, spinning and spinning, compressing the debris.  The stony debris was transformed into soft fertile earth.  And above that earth was formed a layer of air.

Where once there was an orb of spinning crystalline debris that was barely holding itself together, there now was a solid orb of metal, and a world of earth and water spinning around it, and a realm of air spinning over it all.

These were the seeds planted by this being’s accidental and untimely death.  And life grew from these seeds.

With four elements swirling around its surface and core, at any given time on the vast world, there was an imbalance.  When fire receded from a land, it grew cold, so cold that the earth and water froze.  This came to be known as the winter state.  When there was too much fire in the air, it would cause all growing things to seek rest, and that was known as the summer state.  Times when the elements were best balanced became times that were best for living things to grow.  And these came to be known as the spring state and the autumn state.

***

“And that is how the seasons came to be,” my cousin said, reclaiming her mug of lukewarm buttered rum.  “And so how winter came to be.  And also why there has to be winter.  If there was no winter, it would throw off the balance of life in the world.”

The room broke out in applause and she raised her mug to her audience.

“An alien crash-landing, huh?” my cousin, the second challenger, said.  “Cool story, cous’.  Too bad it’s not true.”  He turned to my niece.  “Well mostly not true anyway.  The part about there being a necessary four is correct.”

He adjusted his glasses, and he told his story.

~*~

There once was a ruler whose realm was so vast that one ruler was not enough to rule it.

So this ruler had children, enough children to govern the vast realm.  Four children.  One for each of the cardinal directions.  One ruler for the south, one for the north, one for the west, and one for the east.  They were all born at the same time, and so were of equal power.

And for a time, all four quarters of the vast realm lived in harmony.

But there came a day when one of the four wondered what more might be done, what more strength might be gained, what more knowledge uncovered, by seeking and striving and doing.  And so this one began to seek and strive and do.  This one ruler began to visit other quadrants and even other realms beyond.  And as the ruler grew in strength and wisdom, so did the ruler’s quadrant thrive.  But such had the parent ruler divided the realm and the powers among the four progeny that if more was given to one, it must be taken from the others.

The four rulers did not know this.

So as one quadrant thrived, the other three waned.  As one quadrant basked in eternal sunlight, the other three were cast into darkness and cold, for their warmth was drawn away when their rulers’ warmth was drawn away by their sibling.  And where once there were four who were equal, there now became one who was first.  And the first sibling took a name.  And so was named the quadrant ruled by that sibling, Summer.

The first did not wish to see the others suffer, and told them of the virtues of seeking and striving and doing.

The others tried, with varying degrees of success.

One of them could barely manage, and that one’s quadrant grew even colder and colder.  It became a place of frost and eternal snowfall.  And the colder it was, the less the ruler and the people of the quadrant desired to move and strive.  And so it grew colder still.  And the quadrant became a place of rest and contemplation.  And it became known as Winter.

One ruler worked hard enough to draw some warmth into the soil and air of the quadrant.  And crops grew, but only the hardy ones, for it was still too cold for delicate things to grow.  But the ruler of the realm was satisfied with chill rains and hearty harvests.  And the quadrant was rich enough to feed itself and the other quadrants.  And it became known as Autumn.

And one ruler tried the utmost to mimic the first.  And while not as daring as the first, this one did manage to work as hard and gain as much knowledge, and transform the quadrant into the most beautiful of the four, full of flowers and fruits.  And that ruler and that quadrant became known as Spring.

The first sibling was proud of the others, but at the same time, began to grow more and more jealous of the beautiful Spring that bore such tasty fruits and such stunning flowers.  And the first sibling loved to work, but not all the time, and so became jealous of Winter for its slow and steady pace.

And this first sibling, Summer, traveled to the other quadrants, first planning to secretly learn the ways of the other rulers.  But the love between the siblings was strong, so Summer set aside secret plans and gathered all the siblings in the center of their realm.

Summer admitted to jealousy and the plan to steal knowledge.  And at this, each of the siblings was surprised, for they each had their challenges.  Nothing grew in Winter, and so while Winter was a restful place, it was also devoid of nourishment, and relied upon the other quadrants for food.  Likewise, Autumn had plenty of food, but it was rich food, and it made the people sluggish.  So they depended upon Spring and Summer for lighter fare.  And when they were working the harvest, they worked so hard and were so tired and sore that they longed for a long rest, like the one they might find in Winter.  But unless they went to vacation in Winter, they could find no such rest in their own realm.  Spring, most beautiful of all the quadrants, had no complaints.  Not at first.  But Spring soon admitted a greater jealousy than that of Summer.  For Spring was always striving to become Summer.

And after Winter, Spring, Autumn, and Summer listed their grievances and aired their laments, they all began to laugh.

For they all realized that there were virtues in the imbalances that transformed four similar quadrants into four vastly different yet wondrous quadrants.  But they agreed that it would be beneficial to all the quadrants—to their whole realm—to shift those imbalances around the quadrants by cooperating, and trading not just in goods but in knowledge, and teaching and learning from each other.  In that way, all quadrants of the realm would experience the advantages and benefits of what they called the four weathers.

In time, no one quadrant experienced a particular weather for longer than a few months, a period that came to be known as a season.  And the four weathers became known as the four seasons.

***

There was louder applause this time, the loudest claps coming from the first storyteller, who raised her mug to her rival and nodded.

“Okay, those stories are pretty cool, I guess,” my cousin’s kid said.  “Mine also has four.  And mine also has the ancient elements.”  She raised her hand and shook it as she shook her head.  “But that’s where the similarities end.”

She was maybe fourteen or fifteen.  I couldn’t really tell kids’ ages.  But I was impressed by her boldness at telling a story around a fire, with a rapt audience of mostly adults.

She began her story, and I simultaneously wanted to hear it and tune it out so I could concentrate on coming up with something good myself.

~*~

Four monsters living on a poisoned world decided they wanted a nicer home and started cleaning it up.  What made them monsters, you’re probably wondering.  Why not call them people?

Okay, technically, they’re people.  But I’m going to call them monsters because only monsters would be able to survive in the atmosphere of their home.  Only they could breathe the toxic air that was full of sulfur dioxide instead of clean oxygen.  And only they could drink the sludgy, toxic water.  And only they could eat the diseased and infectious plants and animals that were still somehow alive.  But they knew their food wouldn’t last forever.  And even they were beginning to realize that life in a world without other life was lonely and boring and maybe a little sad.

So, how did they start cleaning up their world, you might ask?

Well, it’s obvious.  There were four of them.  So they split the work up into four.  They made a list of all the stuff that needed to get done.  And then, each monster volunteered for what they wanted to do.  And with the leftover stuff, they…they drew straws.

So, these monsters had powers.  And they had these powers because they stole them from other living creatures who once lived in the world, before it became poisoned.

And the monsters had favorite powers that they liked to steal, and the reason there were the four monsters left in the world is because they didn’t like the same kinds of powers, so they were never really trying to steal from the same creatures or from each other.  They weren’t competing.

So, one of them ended up with the power to turn things very, very cold.  And he cleaned up the areas he was assigned to clean up, which was mostly oceans and seas and other bodies of water, by freezing all the water.

Another monster ended up with the power of fire.  And it was her job to clean up the diseases that affected the creatures of the world, so she set the diseases on fire.

The third monster loved to make things out of metal.  And she used her powers to build these giant metal canisters and threw all of the trash into the canisters.

And the fourth monster, he just like to wreck things by blowing as hard as he could.  And he was assigned to get rid of all the poisons in the air, so he blew them away as far as he could.

So, these monsters hadn’t cared much about school and learning things, so they didn’t understand the concept of living on a planet that was round.

The toxic air that the wind monster blew away, blew so far that it came around the other side of the world and headed toward the monsters again.

When the other monsters saw this, they laughed at the wind monster and told him he had failed.  The fire monster pointed her hands to the sky and used her fire to burn the toxic air so it would be clean again.

And that seemed to work, but the ice monster pointed to the creatures who had been diseased.  When the fire monster set their diseases on fire, the rest of the creatures’ bodies caught fire too, and they were all dying.  The ice monster cooled them all down.  And the wind monster crossed his arms and told said he wasn’t the only failure.

And the metal monster saw all the frozen lakes and rivers, and gathered the other monsters around and asked the ice monster how they or any of the creatures in the world were supposed to drink water when it was all frozen.  And she pointed out that the poisons were still there in the frozen water.

The fire monster said she would fix it, and she began to melt and then boil the water in this one lake.  But then the wind monster blew on the lake and told her to take it easy, because there were fish and other animals in the lake.

The only thing that the monsters had done that seemed to work was the large metal canisters where they had thrown all the trash and clutter.

So, they tried to have the metal monster make metal canisters to contain all the other horrible harmful things in the world, from toxic air to poisoned water.  It worked, but the monsters could see if they locked up all the toxic air and poisoned water in the world, there would be none left.  And they needed air and water.

So finally they decided to sit down and study what they had done already, and they thought about what didn’t work and why it didn’t work.  And they figured out new things to try.  And they tried them.

The first thing the monsters learned was that the best way to clean up their world was to work together.  The wind monster blew toxic winds away, but now the metal monster built a fine sieve made of metals that would catch all the harmful things in the air and let all the clean air through.  Then the fire monster would burn all the harmful things on metal sieve, and they would start again.

And the wind monster didn’t know at first, but when he blew the wind, he blew seeds and pollen all over, so that plants began to sprout around the world, wherever the conditions were right.

The fire monster learned to control her powers so that she could burn away disease without burning away the creature, and the ice monster remained close, so he could put out the fire if he needed.

The fire monster did boil the waters, near the surfaces only, so the creatures living in them would not be hurt, and the water traveled all the way up in the air, where she burned away the poisons, and then the ice monster and the wind monster made the air so cold that the water would turn to rain and then snow and fall back down to the earth.

Little by little, their world became cleaner and cleaner.  And things began to grow.  Grasses and trees.  Flowers.  Fruits.  Animals.  Even people.

There was something that the monsters didn’t know at first, but they discovered it when there were more and more creatures in the world.

The monsters could see each other.  But they were invisible to every other creature in the world.

So when the wind monster blew, the creatures in the world thought it was just the wind.

When the fire monster burned away disease and the ice monster cooled them after, the creatures of the world just thought it was fever and chills.

And they didn’t know that the rain and the snow were caused by the monsters.

And when the world became full of people, the people saw the changes in their world, the sky, the waters, the land, that were caused by the monsters, and they thought it was just the way the world worked.

The people figured out that they had to have times when it was very warm, and times when it was very cold, and times when it was rainy, and times when it was dry, for things to be born, to grow, and to die.

It was only the work of the metal monster that made the people think there might be something else going on.  The metal monster sometimes forgot to take down her sieves and canisters after she had finished cleaning up, and sometimes people found them, and they wondered what else was out there.

But the monsters never showed themselves.

They just kept taking care of the world for as long as they could.

***

A huge round of applause followed the last sentence, and my cousin’s kid smiled and bowed her head, and then rose and curtsied as applause turned into hoots and whistles, and shouts of “encore.”

I took a deep breath as a swell of nervousness rose through my chest.  And I felt a twinge of annoyance.  If I didn’t have to come up with my own story, I would have just enjoyed the stories that everyone else had told, instead of struggling to simultaneously smile and keep swallowing that lump of dread that kept trying to crawl up my throat.

“I guess the Industrial Era killed off those poor monsters, huh?” someone quipped.

My cousin’s kid shrugged.  “I didn’t say it was our world.”

That got a reaction from the crowd.  Napkins thrown at the quipper, and another round of applause for our youngest storyteller.

My sister got up and went to the kitchen.  I felt a release of tension and thought I might get out of it after all.  But then, all three of my rival storytellers turned to face me.

“Your turn,” someone said.

And I gulped.  I thought about warning everyone that my story would not be any good, but then I wondered why I should bother.  This wasn’t a real contest.  We were just having fun.  And I felt as if I had actually come up with something fun.  Well, I’d come up with something.  I cleared my throat.

“They say ‘life is short,’” I said, “but once upon a time, that was even truer than it is now.  Once upon a time, life was really, really short.”

~*~

These periods of time called seasons have always existed.  That is, it used to be, a long time ago, that within the span of a single day, the world would experience a cool dewy morning, a fresh and fragrant noon full of fruits and flowers, a scorching hot afternoon, and then an evening that cooled again, and kept cooling and cooling until the world was frozen, and stayed that way through the night.

Because there was not much time for each type of condition, all life in the world was tiny.  Creatures lay dormant during the hours of cold, when the world was frozen.  In the morning when it started to warm, things would sprout and hatch, and while it stayed warm, things would grow and grow quickly, but only grow so much.  By the later afternoon, it was time to mate, for all the creatures who wanted to mate, and by evening, new life had sparked, and would stay asleep during the frozen night, and wait until morning to emerge in the world.

But there was one people who wanted more time.  More time to grow, to enjoy life before it ended.  More time to satisfy curiosity that always went unsatisfied.  And by a few accidents recorded in their history, they had learned of times when by some fluke, the warm conditions lasted longer, and a crop yield was higher, and the crops themselves bigger.  An apple the size of a raindrop grew as big as three raindrops.  And the people who ate that bigger food also grew slightly bigger.

So this people gathered together and discussed what they could do.  And they planned.  They started with the plants.  They built machines and structures to collect and capture the rain, to capture the warmth of the afternoon, to stave off the cold.  It took generations upon generations of the short-lived folk to do the work.  But when they did, they succeeded in growing larger crops and larger foods.  And by eating the larger foods, they too became larger and longer-lived.

And something they did not expect happened.  The conditions in their land shifted, as if they were responding to the growing plants and the growing people.  The warm days lasted longer and longer.  But so did the cold days.  They couldn’t have one without the other.  So the seasons came to be.  The people grew bigger and bigger.  And because of the changes they made to their world, other creatures also grew.  Some grew along with the people.  Some grew even bigger.  But the tiny creatures of the world, such as insects, still remained as remnants of those times when all things were tiny, and all lives were short.

***

I pressed my lips together and gave as humble a nod as I could manage, as applause flared once again.  But I couldn’t help but release a chuckle, more out of relief than anything, but also a little out of triumph.  Because I’d done it.  I glanced around at my fellow storytellers.  We nodded to each other.

“So, who wins?” someone asked.

My sister walked into the room, pushing a small cart with a couple of steaming jugs.  “I just brought out a pot of hot chocolate, so I’d say everyone wins.”

My cousin filled her hot buttered rum mug with hot chocolate and turned to my niece.  “Which story did you like best?”

“All of them,” my niece said.

“Okay, but which one did you like best?”

“All of them…together.”

“What do you mean, hon?” her mother asked her.

My niece grinned widely, showing the gap from a recently fallen tooth on the left side of her mouth.

“What if the four monsters were related?” she said.  “What if they were siblings, and that’s why they fought so much?”  Here she glanced at her mother, specifically at her mother’s belly, stretched under a shirt that read “Coming Soon.”  My sister was eight months pregnant, and my niece could not wait to get her diabolical mitts on her soon-to-arrive sibling.

“And what if when they were still bad,” she continued, “the monsters stole most of their powers from that person—was it an alien—who crashed and got split up.  And what if the monsters were the ones who stretched the seasons out when the tiny people wanted more time?”

My cousin’s kid smiled.  “A mashup story.  Very cool.”

My eyes widened as my sister handed me a cup of hot chocolate.  “Folks, I think my niece just set up a superhero-style crossover event.”

I raised my cup to her.  “To the winner.”

A dozen cups rose in the air and a dozen voices echoed my own.

“To the winner!”

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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