The Cold People Or the Boy Who Danced in the Snow

The Cold People or The Boy Who Danced in the Snow

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The Cold People or The Boy Who Danced in the Snow

by

Austin H. Williams

 

Once upon a time a child stuck his hand out into the frosted night and felt the soft prickling of fine-grain snow for the first time.

He opened up the window to see the tiny flakes falling down, and to him it was like touching the stars. In nothing more than his nightshirt, he crawled through the window and leapt out onto the dried grass and watched as feathery drifts grew between the brittle blades. He pinched the slush between his fingers and it turned to water in his hands. He welcomed with open arms the rushing winds as they pelted him with tiny strikes, and he smiled under the clouded moonlight as everything turned from gray to white.

He ran about, cupping up snow piles, scattering the frosty wisps into the air, dancing amidst the shards as they sped past like a teeming host of little angels. He saw his breath against the flurrying rush, felt the hairs in his nose freeze as he breathed the purified air. The coldness encompassed him, and he felt blanketed in its grasp.

Then a light came from inside his house. His mother and father came running outside with a blanket and a lamp.

His father threw the blanket around him and drew him up in his arms. His mother held the lamp to his face and felt his cheeks with her hand.

“He’s ice cold!” said his mother.

They started running back towards the house.

“Did you hear any voices?” his father asked.

“No,” he said.

“Did you hear any music?”

“No.”

“Did you see anyone?”

“No.”

They all came back inside where his mother started up a fire, and his father continued to hold him close and put warmth back into his body.

“Why are you so afraid?” the boy asked.

“You shouldn’t go out into the cold like that,” his mother said. “You could get sick or freeze to death.”

“But I didn’t feel cold!” he said.

His parents exchanged concerned glances. His father sat him next to the fire and put the kettle on. When the boy felt warm again to his mother’s touch, they put him back to bed, and locked the window to his room from the outside.

 

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That year was the first winter the boy had seen where it had snowed so heavily, but every winter thence brought snowfalls just as large. The boy’s wonder at the snow and the cold never diminished. While others bundled and grumbled about the freezing weather, he ran out to greet it and made his home in it. His parents watched with worried glances when he ran out into the snow, and had an open fire and loving embraces awaiting him when he came back each night.

His parents only had three rules about playing in the snow: The first was that he could not go into the snowfall at night. The second was that he should never leave the sight of their house when he went out to play. The third was that he must always bundle up when playing in it.

The boy grew older, and eventually he reached the age when many children begin to ignore their parents, growing reckless and contentious with regard to their instructions. Thus it was one night that the sun had fallen but the snow still came, and he stayed out in it. It turned from a gray day to a moonless night, but he still saw the lights from his home, and he sat in the open forest to behold the scattering clusters falling from the sky.

In the enwrapping calm, a whisper carried gently on the wind. It spoke in words he did not understand, but it seemed to speak to him directly. Feeling such a pervasive peace in the forest that night, he said out loud, “Yes!” though to whom he did not know and for what he could not fathom.

His parents yelled for him to come inside, and, disappointed, the son obeyed.

The next night the snow continued to fall, and again, the boy decided to stay out past sunset. Again, that sense of stillness and peace pervaded him, and he could not bring himself to be separated from the snow, even against his parent’s wishes.

And in the calm of falling snow that night, he thought he heard lonely notes of music playing behind the snowfall curtain. The music harmonized with the softness all around him, and its forlorn beauty struck him to his soul.

He ran off to find it, following the solemn resonance into the woods and over hills, pausing at whiles to stand at peace and let the sounds stir through him.

That night, he lost sight of his home, but he still heard his parents’ voices when they called him inside. He again went back to them, and enjoyed the warmth of his family.

He said to his parents that night, “It sounded like the wind was whispering to me yesterday.”

His parents, never particularly jovial in any case, stiffened their backs and hardened the looks on their faces. “And did you hear anything else?” his father asked.

“I heard beautiful music playing somewhere else tonight.”

“You won’t go outside tomorrow,” his mother said. “You will stay inside. You won’t go out again until the cold and the snow have passed.”

The boy protested, but his parents did not waver. All day the next day, the boy stayed inside and watched as the snow fell. He saw boughs crash as they grew weary of holding up their burdens. He watched flurries spin and twist in dancing swirls. He remembered the soft notes he heard in the wind and wondered where they had come from.

He asked his mother why he could not go outside.

“Because we’re afraid for you,” she said.

He asked his father.

“Because,” he said, “you might become one of the cold people.”

The boy prodded further, but his father only said, “If you become one of them, you will be lost to us. You don’t want to be taken away from your mother and father forever, do you?”

“No,” said the boy, “that would be the worst thing in the world!”

But that night as the wind continued to whip and wail outside, and the snow built higher and higher on his windowsill, he kept hearing the music in his head, and he wanted to know more.

At last he could not control himself; he broke open the window and slipped out again, wearing only his nightshirt.

His steps crunched through the untrodden snow, but he felt no sting in his feet. Soon again the wind carried whispers for him, and he heard the light notes pricking through the air. He picked up his heels and ran faster and faster, and he lost sight of his house, and when he’d run farther into the woods than he ever had before, he saw people.

They were all youths of his age or thereabouts, standing around an older boy with a zither on his lap. Their skin had turned to the color of ice, and their hair hung down like the boughs of frozen evergreens. The girls wore nightgowns with icicle fringe, and they decorated their hair with bunches of holly. The boys wore nightshirts, and pinecones dangled from their locks. And the boy with the zither played that strange, muted song full of awe and longing.

At the end of his song, the boy with the zither welcomed the newcomer, and beckoned for him to join.

“Why are you allowing me to come with you?” the boy asked.

“Because you are one of us,” the lad with the zither said. “You dance in the cold at night. You hear the whispers in the wind. You follow the music as it leads. Not everyone dances in the winter time; indeed, very few do. But come, you are now our brother!”

As the sun’s light peered above the horizon, the youths stood and walked, then frolicked, then ran at the speed of the frozen wind, playing and twirling in the midst of it as they traveled farther and farther away.

 

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He and the other youths went on for days and days. At times they ran and crashed through forests and villages like the most brutal winter storm, and at other times they walked slow and quiet like a peaceful snowy sprinkling. As they traveled, the sun always rose to their right and set to their left.

When they came upon towns, the folk huddled inside. From within their homes came the glow of firelight, and the cold people stayed away from it. The boy would see the light from inside people’s homes, and a certain distant feeling would prick at the back of his mind — a sense of having been wounded, but by what he did not know. But the ice and the music pushed these thoughts away.

The boy and his new kin had no home to lay their heads, but they needed no home either. The clouded sky became their roof, thick drifts of snow their bedding.

They continued like this for years and years, losing track of time, forgetting their names, and welcoming newcomers when they arrived.

 

❄️

 

One night as he crept through the woods, the boy saw a campfire up ahead. He broke away from his friends to look more closely. There, men with hunting equipment sat dressed in heavy furs and exchanged stories.

Wide flakes of snow glided down, and lit by the men’s fire, made a halo of golden light around them — a curtain past which the boy could not approach.

He crept as close as he could though. One of the men had a voice that made him think of the warmth of home and a love whose embrace he had all but forgotten.

“My boy loved the snow,” the old man said. “He got out and played in it as much as anyone could. And it would make me and his mother so happy to see that look in his eye when the ground was blanketed white, but we knew there was danger there.

“And on a night like this, he decided to stay out after it was dark. And then the night after that he walked too far away from our house. Then the next night, he disappeared. We looked, we searched everywhere around our house, around our village — but he was lost to us.”

The boy took another step closer.

“Did you hear that?” said one of the men. “Like a footstep!”

The others were set on edge, but when nothing further happened, they allowed their guards to fall.

“The night is late,” said the old man. “We should get rest.”

 

❄️

 

The next morning the hunters left, and the boy, for the first time since joining with the youths, broke away, and followed the men.

Through the haze of falling snow, the boy recognized the shapes of buildings in the village near where he grew up. He continued after the hunters, and when they split up, the boy followed the old man who told his story the night before.

The road seemed natural and easy to navigate. The terrain was familiar, though changed. At last he arrived at a cottage that he knew through the fog of distant memory. He had finally returned home.

When the sun set that night, but before his parents had gone to bed, he knocked on the door.

Someone answered the door, but the heat from inside was too great, and the boy skittered away before he could greet his parents. “Put the fire out!” he cried, but to his parents, his voice was but a whisper.

Later, as they let the fire go down and they went to bed, he knocked on the door again. Someone got up and came to the door.

His mother then looked upon her son, and she had grown very old, and she cried in grief and went to wrap her arms around him. But the son ran away, and he yelled, “Please don’t embrace me! Your warmth is too much!”

She stood alone in the doorway, a stricken look upon her face. She stared out long to the falling snow before she turned back inside and shut the door behind her.

A third time, the boy rapped on the door. This time his father answered it, and seeing the boy standing there, his skin as pale as snow and his hair like the frozen bough of an evergreen, he did not reach out to embrace him, or invite him inside.

“I see you, my boy,” he said. “And I would want nothing more than to embrace you, to warm you by the fire, and to put you in your own to stay with us — but I know what you have become. I know you cannot feel my fingers as long as warmth flows through them. I know that you cannot come into this house as long as heat enough is here to keep us alive at night.

“I love you my son, but our worlds are sundered.”

The boy raised his hands and cried in dismay.

“If you can hear me, know that I love you, but I cannot let you in. Either we will freeze or you will melt. I have already lost you and mourned you as dead; I cannot be the one who would end your life truly.”

“I hear you father!” the boy said. “Please, let me in to say goodbye one last time!”

The father looked through age-furrowed eyes with pity. “Good bye,” he said. “Good bye!”

“Wait!” said the boy, but he could not stop his father. The door closed. The boy fell to his knees in front of it.

As the snow dropped from the sky, a bitter wind blew past, and it brought to the boy’s ears the whispers and the music that had become his life.

After so long standing in the dark and hearing the patter of snowfall and the summoning of his kin, he at last got up as the dawn began breaking.

The boy traveled again to the north, and joined with the others of his people, and he continued to dance and run and play in the frozen world that had become his own. Never again would he see that village or find rumor of his parents, but when he saw the glow from inside homes and villages, he remembered what it felt like to be warm. And he would turn away, charging deeper and deeper into the heart of the cold, hoping that he would never again recall what it felt like to be warm and comforted and loved.

© 2014-2016 Austin H. Williams
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