Winter did return to the valley, a little later each year now, it seemed, and with winter returned the snow and with the snow began in earnest The Snowflake Collector’s work.
He applied his formula and mixed according to it his extraordinary liquid that had just the right qualities, the exact consistency and molecular structure to capture snowflakes as they sank into it, without melting them, without damaging, harming them, but able to, so far as the continued existence of George suggested, preserve them for not only seconds or minutes or hours or days, but for months, maybe years. And he quickly found that the differentials of success over failure were minuscule. It took him many days and every day several attempts just to recreate a small quantity of the solution, and even then the snowflake that sank into it only kept its shape for a moment before it melted and passed.
Not only were the proportions of the ingredients to each other of critical importance, but the stillness of the liquid inside the cube – one inch by one inch by one – and, particularly, the precise temperature at the point of entry made the difference between death and a continuation of life, in some sense, of the snowflake that was being captured. Even how long it took him to seal the cube after capturing a snowflake mattered to how likely the snowflake was to stay intact.
His task, he soon realised, was not just immense, it was also extraordinarily difficult and demanding. But he did not mind. And he no longer despaired. He had, on his shelf in his hut, one pristine, perfect specimen of a snowflake, the one he had named George, and George was still there, he still shone like a tiny beacon that whispered of the attainable, and as long as he was there, there was a point, there was a purpose, there was a reason, and if it was one reason only, to persist.
Innumerable may be the failures now – and innumerable, though they weren’t, they felt – before The Snowflake Collector would succeed in capturing even just one snowflake as exquisite as George, but he knew now it was possible, and that was all he needed to know. And as he persevered he was able to, slowly, gradually, attain other, similar miniature triumphs. None, perhaps, felt as glorious as George had felt, that surprising day in the wrong season when he had landed upon him, but each brought its own little joy, its own advancement, sometimes followed, shortly after, by a setback, a failure, even a minor catastrophe. But none now were in that sense a disaster.
He carefully crafted more sturdy boxes for the glass cubes that he made, and he filled one, then another, with snowflakes that he named, each as he caught it; and regularly Yanosh would come up to his hut, and now they often found they had something to talk about. They still mainly just nodded at each other to signal ‘hello’, and then when they parted they signalled ‘goodbye’ in a similar way, but as The Snowflake Collector himself now spent so little time sitting outside his hut and so much time cutting glass plates, assembling them into cubes, building boxes, mixing liquids, studying the effects these liquids had on the snowflakes and the effects that these snowflakes had on the liquids, and perfecting his practice, Yanosh seldom now simply sat outside The Snowflake Collector’s hut to watch him, or watch the world go by – which didn’t go by here, as both of them knew, even though both of them knew also that it also never stood still – but helping him, if there was some way to help, or, if not, then photographing these snowflakes in their exceptional beauty.
And as The Snowflake Collector honed his technique, he became not only better at what he was doing, he slowly turned into an expert at snowflake collecting and beyond an expert he became a master at it. He began to understand these snowflakes as they spoke to him in their silent presence, and he learnt to absorb and to internalise their essence. He still wasn’t able to communicate it, but he felt that maybe that wasn’t so necessary now, because as he was becoming a master at snowflake collecting, Yanosh kept taking pictures of them, and he too got better at taking pictures of snowflakes, and although he did not have any desire to become an expert at snowflake photography, or let alone, in these young years of his, a master at anything yet, his pictures were astonishingly compelling, and, as he did with any picture he had taken and of which he thought that someone might like it, he posted some of these snowflakes online, and predictably people were struck by their wondrousness.
Without knowing it, The Snowflake Collector acquired a following. Yanosh didn’t make much of the fact that the picture collections he set up on his social network began to spread and attract the attention of admirers all over the world. To him, that was just what happened when you posted pretty pictures online. But there was something about these snowflakes that set them apart from other pictures of snowflakes. Maybe it was the way in which they were kept, in these glass cubes, floating, it seemed, in a gel that lent them their luminous sheen; maybe it was the names that The Snowflake Collector gave them and that Yanosh faithfully transferred when he labelled these pictures; or maybe it was just the unfussy tenderness of Yanosh’s framing, the gentle exposure and understated postproduction that made them look as complex as nature and as simple as geometrical art: it was impossible to tell.
What was certain was that The Snowflake Collector’s snowflake collection grew, and as it grew and grew more captivating, it captured the imagination of more people, and it wasn’t so long before some of these people, either because they happened to be in the relative vicinity of the valley already, or because they felt this was as good a reason as they needed to come to the valley, started to visit him. The Snowflake Collector was not keen on visitors, by and large, but as they were few only in number, and their appearance in the valley was infrequent enough, he welcomed them and introduced them to some of his snowflakes, individually, selectively, and by name; and the visitors would tell their friends about these encounters in conversations and post their own pictures of the snowflakes and of The Snowflake Collector, recounting their stories; and invariably, as The Snowflake Collector’s reputation spread, ‘the media’ finally cottoned on to him. At first it was just a young journalist who took an interest in these curious tales she’d heard and who was fascinated by the pictures she ‘discovered’ when doing a quick search online, and she came to the valley and did a sensitive portrait of him that appeared somewhere in a paper that few people read.
This was picked up by another and soon yet another, and without ever wishing it so, The Snowflake Collector found himself famous. He did not understand the reason for this. He was The Snowflake Collector, what he did was collect snowflakes. He was generous with his snowflakes and he would introduce them to anyone who came to him curious to meet them, but he did not think that what he was doing – although as a task immense and demanding – was something that anyone else so disposed as he could not easily do.
The people who came to visit him, most particularly those who came from ‘the media’, found this quaint and endearing. The Snowflake Collector knew they were patronising him, but he did not mind about that either. He felt no anger towards them, and no contempt. These were the same people – not the same individuals, of course, but broadly speaking representatives of the same culture – that had for decades ignored and belittled him. Even ridiculed him. But those long years he had spent in the big city among them, trying to be taken seriously by them, attempting to create, wishing himself noticed by them, they had washed away with the meltwater that had rushed down the stream by which he kept his small plot of land with the trees that he planted, two for each one that he cut down to use for his modest needs. He had no fear of them now and no regard other than the regard he had, and had kept, always, for all human beings: they were friends in as much as they were certainly not enemies, for to grant someone the status of enemy is to give them power over you, and The Snowflake Collector had long ceased to give anyone power over himself. He was, now more than ever, his own man.