He walked, alone. The city opened to him.
An old man, his hair white and unkempt, his beard wild. His heavy coat was fur-lined, but patched in places, frayed. It furled and flapped against the breeze winding through the cobbled canyons of the city. He walked.
The streets seemed familiar to him, the faint taste of something recognized beneath the wash of change. His boots knew the spiderwebbed traces in the asphalt.
Lights burned everywhere. Cars traipsed past, their narrow beams of angry white illuminating the faces of buildings he almost remembered. Street lamps buzzed overhead, blazing in brilliant spotlights. Touches of golden wheat faded from the sky, replaced with the first lavender that would become the navy-dark night. Bruised clouds threatened the horizon. The city burned, to keep the cold nights at bay.
He’d forgotten–forgotten something important. He caught snatches, dancing in the depths of fogged-glass memories, but the hard fact remained out of reach. His lack of truth troubled him; it seemed he had been walking for some time without one. He walked because he needed to. The years turned, the seasons rolled.
He passed people on the street, and they gave him odd looks. He looked out of place, lost. He did not belong in their laugh-a-day world. They didn’t ask him if he needed help, or wish him good evening. They chattered and laughed, each a shining light, vibrant unto themselves–but their eyes traced him, tracked him. When he drew level with them on the street, their faces grew a shadow, pinched and uneasy, like he would stop and speak to them, burden their existence with his own. They eyed the case in his hand, and quickly brushed past.
He needed to do something, but he couldn’t remember what it was. The street beneath him rolled and turned, and he followed it onward.
Autumn surrounded him as he walked, a friendly, familiar face. The trees, planted in single file along the sidewalks or clustered together in the park, blazed brilliant in shades of red and gold. The scent of cinnamon floated on the wind from the window-lined street. Autumn pressed close–crisp, clear. Glass, fogged beneath warm fingertips. He knew that feeling very well, but as the glass, never the warmth.
There were others, other roamers and strays, but they were not like him. They eyed him from beneath their hasty shelters of cardboard with narrow eyes of suspicion, owners of a veiled truth. He ignored their muttered grumbles and drunken slurring. Their anger at him. He shouldered it, as he had before. It didn’t matter to him. They had hated him, did hate him. Would hate him. He was not the one who pushed them away, sent them squatting in their own filth and humiliation, shrank their existence until it was easily walked past. He was not the one who would find them hunched beneath a thin blanket, cold as the snow outlining their still forms.
Music floated in one of the squares, centered in a small group of smiling faces. He knew the song, caught snatches of it before it floated away. Had he heard it before? Like the streets it seemed familiar but different, a melody slightly changed but still with a subtle beat, beckoning to him. The people clustered around the player smiled and nudged each other, some singing along. He’d seen this before–the joy on the people’s faces, the content smile on the face of the musician as he held them all together with the song. He bore witness to it every year.
For a second, a single second, a smile broke his weathered and lined face, and he remembered. From deep within, the spark of memory. He had his own song to play. No one smiled at his song, no one stood before him as he played it with a smile. He played it alone, for the song’s own sake. His hand tightened on the case, and he walked on.
The street widened into a square, bustling as a hive. A market stood beneath the gaily painted signs, selling toys and trinkets from stalls. Children shrieked with joy, adults stood by sipping warm drinks. There was a sense of peace, community. The night was cool and still, forgiving. Lights on a string crossed the square in bright garlands, strung high, decorated with glass and baubles.
The old man paused. Could he join them? He wanted to. It seemed an easy enough idea; set down the case, walk forward. Perhaps enjoy a cup of…what the adults held in their mitts. The name escaped him. He forgot so many things. He could walk into the warmth of those smiling and laughing people, bathe in the light that glowed from each of them, smile back and talk, be accepted–
No. No of course he couldn’t. This wasn’t his place. This would never be his place. His place was the road, his place was far from here.
His place was the whistling pines.
He looked down at his case, and walked on.
The streets grew leaner, tighter, the buildings shorter and further apart. He saw houses, each a glittering parcel, a snapshot. Each a warm memory that belonged to someone else. Families decorated trees together, gathered around meals together, played outside together. He passed them invisible, another tramp on his own, living a silent life. None of these places was for him.
All that remained was the road, and the song.
He walked alone. The city fell away behind him. Beyond the city lay the wilds. The road weaved through cultivated fields, shallow and barren in the lateness of the year, before turning around the first of the hills that leapt up into the sky to become mountains. They were the dark teeth of the horizon, painted orange and gold from the failing sun. Crows gathered on fences and cawed at him with cocked heads. He ignored their chatter.
The road climbed the back of a rounded hill. On the other side, a forest of soft pine. Thick roots broke through the soft loam, steeped in pooled shadow. Overhead, the boughs sighed in a gust of wind, needles soughing against each other. It smelled of dirt, of pine sap. It was a clean smell, raw and unfiltered. Out here, no lights burned his eyes. In the wilds, time forgot.
The old man paused. He knew the forest, knew the hills. His boots knew the hardpan rock and dust of the road.
It was the bear that woke him. It shouldered through the pines, large enough to brush the boughs aside. It walked slow, cumbersome. Weary. Blood from a fresh kill dripped from its maw. The great beast sniffed, and turned to look at him.
Don’t you have somewhere to be?
Intent flared to life in his fogged-over memories, and he remembered. The song. He needed to play his song, for the song’s own sake.
The old man walked on, and soon turned off the road. He walked it long enough. The forest swallowed his footsteps, leaving no trace in the dirt and carpet of mouldering leaves.
He walked like the wind.
Soon the ground grew steep, and rocky. The pine trees faltered and fell away. He walked slowly, borne of purpose. The case became heavy in his hand but he did not set it down. He did not stop.
The air grew thin, cool. He chased the last rays of daylight up the shoulder of the mountain.
His intent brightened and the haze diminished. With each step, it seemed, he remembered who he was. Remembered his purpose.
He had a song to play. He played this song for a long time, just as he walked for a long time. But what did time matter to him?
Finally, he stopped. He stood on a flat spur of rock jutting from the mountain, looking down on the valley far below. In the distance, the lights of the city glitter, warm motes where the land ended. The world hesitated at his feet, held on the brink of change. Waiting for him. How many times had he walked here alone? How many times had he played his song?
He set the case down gently, slipped open the leather restraints.
He knew who he was.
A man stands on a mountain. He looks as wild as the country that falls away below the precipice; a coarse beard to match his snow-white hair, heavy coat and boots. He looks like he sprouted from the rock he stands on, stolid.
In his hands, he holds a violin. The instrument is old, old as the man himself, but cared for, polished until the wood glows with its own light.
The day behind the man is dying. Red resin paints the clouds that billow in the sky, casting hard shadows on the man’s face.
He puts the violin on one shoulder, and closes his eyes. He holds the bow above the strings, and feels the wind against his face. He knows that it is time. Time to play his song, once more. He touches the bow to the strings, and the first notes float into the gloam. He plays, and loses himself to the melody that surrounds him.
The breeze caressing the mountain builds into a wind, then a gale, whistling as it slips through the thousand faces cut in the rock. It comes from the north.
It smells of frost.
Loose leaves skitter and skate across the forest floor below, whipped from their resting place to float high in the sky on the new breeze. They fly like soldiers, heralds of what is coming. What has always come.
Deep in the hills, by a small spring, long grass ruffles in the north wind, then still beneath the first touches of crystalline hoarfrost. Ice encroaches the still water, clouding the reflection of the sunset.
The clouds split open, and rain falls on the mountain. It moves over the pine trees in waves, and the sounds of autumn are lost beneath the ceaseless rattle.
The old man notices all of this, and none of this. He plays his song, and watches the world change beneath his feet.
Wind howls down the mountain, into the forest. Deer and rabbit, wolf and fox flee it’s icy touch, burrowing beneath hill and dale, taking shelter from the cold. The last rays of daylight fade from the sky, and the long night reigns.
In the hush of rising silence the rain turns to snow, and blows towards the city.
Old Man Winter stands on the mountain, and plays the world his song.
Photo Credit: Annkatrin Rose