The Ice King – 1: The Chamber

Deep inside the glacier lives The Ice King, supple and smooth. His skin is aglow with the cold and unbelievably soft. He should be milky white but there’s an olive tint to his hue and no sooner do I see it than I want to touch it. Without gesture or words, he demurs.

He is wearing no clothes but it’s clear that he’s warm; he’s in his element: he is The Ice King, and he doesn’t beckon or smile: he stands at the end of the hall that is lined with blue-sheened green walls of ice. They look soft, insubstantial, but they are hard as stone, centuries of gravity have worked them into solid rock. I close my eyes for a moment, the smell of the ice is clean and pure.

I slowly move towards him and as each step feels heavier with uncertain awe, my head gets lighter. I realise for him I’ll have to be all or nothing. Already I’m feeling the heat and I’m twenty, thirty feet from him yet. There, at the end of the hall, tall with ice and nothing else, is a passage, a gateway, in which he stands; he has no need for me, but I am now beholden to him. I slowly advance and as I do so I have to let go, I have to, have to let go.

I half expect servants to take off my coat and my woolly hat, but there are no servants and no attendants, there is only he and he looks at me unsmiling but kind. He is ageless, of course, he is dark-eyed and strong. The Ice King waits for me to come to him, he knows that I must, now. For a moment I’m tempted to look back to see what’s behind me, to confirm that this is the path I have chosen, but something tells me that for that it’s too late; now there is only forward, and so the snowfield, the mountain, the moon, the cavernous void of the night, the narrow, low gap that I happened upon and through which, more curious ever than brave, I had entered, fall away and become immaterial. There is no echo in the glacier and no breeze. There is no fire and so there’s no smoke. There is air and the air is still. Cold as it is, it doesn’t move; it envelops me and so it feels warm. The Ice King knows that I am now in his power, and he turns and walks ahead, I follow.

The gateway, the passage, the transition. A corridor of light and dark, of shapes and patterns. It neither narrows nor widens, it extends. The Ice King, naked, not tall, not short, of a human-scale build, moves ahead and each step he takes on the ice, the ice seems to light just a little under his feet: it may be in my imagination. It may be just a reflection. There is no other life in here, only he and I. And there’s the light that plays on us. Deeper into the glacier we go and the deeper we go, the narrower the corridor through which we pass must become now, but it doesn’t get lower, only less wide, until it is possible, just, to walk in a dead straight line, just about, without your arms or your shoulders touching the walls. He walks ahead of me, and I now follow closely; I sense the warmth off his body, and the icy walls look as though they glow just a little as he passes. It may be just my imagination. Maybe a reflection. Every surface is smooth but not flat: the curvatures of natural ice.

We arrive in the chamber: the chamber is empty and neither dark nor bright, there is a greenish whitish blueish light that comes from all directions at once, and in the middle of the chamber there is a large elevation where the ice rises to knee level, just: is this our bed? There is no fire but I am not cold and while the Ice King reclines, I loosen my scarf, I take off my gloves. I want to touch the ice but his eyes are on me, and I take off my coat and my jumper, my shirt…

The Snowflake Collector – 9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder

It was a miserable Easter that The Snowflake Collector encountered, and Whitsun was worse. Day after day the sun rose, but not he, not for hours. Most days, he barely made it onto the bench outside his hut, and since he had no appetite, he didn’t eat, and as he didn’t eat he grew gaunt, and the listlessness in his heart turned the skin that hung off his bones grey and painted his spirit all bleak.

There would have been butterflies to colour his mind; there would have been cute little crocuses. The meadows turned yellow with dandelions and green with fresh, rich grass and there were the multitude of insects with their implacable buzz and their hum; and the cows returned with their picture book bells that lent the valley its melodic chime in the distance.

The Snowflake Collector cared aught. He went not on his walks and he neglected his wood by the stream. He missed Yanosh, whose visits had become sparse, but he could not bring himself to wander down to the path the inn, an hour or so from his hut, to nod his silent ‘hello’ to him there and ask for an ale from his mother Yolanda. There was no point now to any of it, the pointlessness of it all was complete.

It was an unusually sullen day in June – after a month of May full of sunny disposition, bordering on the obnoxious – that The Snowflake Collector was sitting on his bench outside his hut when he saw Yanosh climb up the path at a pace. He was in no hurry, Yanosh, since he, much as The Snowflake Collector, had eschewed the notion of ‘hurry’, or rather had never embraced it, but he was a good and energetic walker, and he was young and so wherever he went, he went with a stride.

Yanosh sat down next to The Snowflake Collector on his bench, but today he didn’t even nod a ‘hello’, nor did he say anything, he just sat there, apparently more than a little perturbed. The Snowflake Collector did not speak either, but he looked over at him, to find his friend staring ahead of himself, at the ground. Something, The Snowflake Collector surmised, must have happened, most likely something to upset him, perhaps something that his mother Yolanda had said, though more likely something a teacher at school had remarked or something his inadequate peers had done; but to ask, The Snowflake Collector felt, was to pry, and it was not in his nature to pry, nor was it in Yanosh’s nature to expect him to.

Thus the young lad who wasn’t quite as young as sometimes he seemed and the old man who was nowhere near as old as he felt sat there in silence for an hour or two, until something occurred that took them both by surprise. It started to snow. They were in the mountains, at the end of the valley, near the glacier now slowly receding, just above the tree line, so snow in June was not unheard of for Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector, but although this had been an ill favoured month, they weren’t expecting it now.

When Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector now looked at each other, they both burst out laughing. They had no good reason, it was just that they cut surreal figures in a picturesque setting at the onset of summer when it had started to snow, and at this precise moment, for the first time, they realised this. The Snowflake Collector got up and with a few moves cleared the wooden table outside his hut, then he went into his kitchen and brought out a box that had in it the glass cubes he’d made. He brought out the bottles of liquids that he had bought and mixed and experimented with throughout the winter, and he stood at the table outside his hut, Yanosh watching him in fascination, and, noting down ratios and combinations with a heavy pencil directly onto the heavy table, he began developing new solutions, one emerging from the other, building on any progress he was making and discarding any failures without grief.

Three hours and forty-odd minutes went by in this manner before he needed a short break for comfort, and he disappeared momentarily, leaving on his table three cubes, each with a marginally different solution in it, and maybe he forgot or maybe his subconscious willed him to omit laying any kind of cover on them, but Yanosh sat and watched in an astonishment that unclenched his own heart how a gorgeous snowflake eased itself directly into the cube in the middle, and stayed.

Yanosh got up from his bench, slowly. Carefully he advanced on the miracle he was sole witness to and hesitantly, reluctantly lest he should undo it, lest a shake or a wobble or the hot breath from his nostrils should disturb it, he, holding on to the weighty wooden table, squatted down and watched, and watched. He didn’t notice that The Snowflake Collector had long since appeared behind him and in turn observed the scene, from just a little distance, also so as not to chase away its wonder. Then The Snowflake Collector became aware of another fat snowflake making its way just about straight into the same cube and he darted forward and caught that one with his hand, while with his other hand supporting himself on Yanosh to avoid knocking the table. Softly now he covered the cube with its purpose-cut lid and squatted down beside Yanosh to examine its beauty.

It was perfect. The liquid, in which the snowflake now floated was completely clear and the snowflake was still intact: minutes after immersing itself, it retained its shape, its intricate structure, its delicacy. It was miraculous. But could it last? The temperature outside on this day was just a few degrees above freezing. Would the snowflake, once brought inside, now melt and dissipate into its ether? The Snowflake Collector barely dared touch it but he fixed the lid to its cube now with a permanent seal of glue and left it standing there. Time would tell. Snowfall in June doesn’t tend to last very long: soon the sun would appear and subject his experiment to the most unforgiving of tests.

Yanosh went home as he usually did around this time when he had come to visit during the day, and The Snowflake Collector went inside his hut to lie down. He was exhausted. And although he had no certainty yet and certainly no evidence that this latest effort of his would bear fruit, that it worked, that his snowflake would still be there in the morning, he already sensed the unbearable burden of sorrow ease off his chest. Each breath of air he took in filled him deeper with reconciliation and for a moment he remembered that he hadn’t named this snowflake! No matter, he thought, as his eyelids grew heavy and he slowly surrendered to sleep: it can wait. If the snowflake is still a snowflake next time I wake, it shall have a name.

8: It Was, in Every Imaginable Sense, a Disaster <

> 10: George

The Snowflake Collector – 1: Barely The End of October

Up at the end of the valley, the far end, before it yields to the glacier which reaches down from the mountain pass, slowly receding now with growing temperatures, lives an old man who looks at the world still with wonder.

He is not as old as he seems at first glance, and much older than his years all the same, for he knows. He knows, deep inside, what holds the universe together and what tears it apart and what being these molecules, what being that energy means. He knows it but he can’t express it, and so he won’t. He won’t talk about it, he won’t, in fact, talk about anything much, he appreciates silence.

When he was young he used to meet up with friends for a drink and a chinwag, and then it began to dawn on him that much of what he was being told, and even more of what he heard himself speak, was an array of variations on themes: things he’d heard said and had spoken before, in this way, or that, or another. Self-perpetuating reiterations of what everybody already knew and keenly agreed on, or hotly disputed, as was their whim.

And so he let go, he let go of his friends whom he loved but could no longer bring himself to like, and let go of the circuitous conversations that did nothing but remind everybody that they were still who they thought they needed to want to be. He was tired. And being tired he got old, older than his years, older than his looks, older than the oak tree in the oldest garden. And he moved, once or twice first, then twice or thrice more, and each move took him further away from those whom he had been, had made himself feel, acquainted with. First the country, then the coast, then the foreign lands, then mountains, then the valley and then the end of the valley, in the mountains again. The remotest place he could find.

It was not that he was happy here, it was just that he was content. Content not to need to desire happiness any more. And here he sat and walked. Sat by the house he’d bought for very little, and walked over the fields and the meadows and up to the vantage points from which he could see the peaks and the woods and the villages, in the very great distance. He liked that distance: distance was space, distance was calm, distance was perspective. Unencumberedness. Distance was good.

Winter came to the valley and it was barely the end of October and going for walks now was harder because everything was covered in snow. And this being the far end of the remotest valley he could find, nobody came to clear the snow or pave the paths or even the lane that led up to his hut. So he was stuck, in a way, and he liked being stuck, it meant, in a way, being safe. Safe from visitors, safe from the desire to go out, safe from choices. The persistent demand of decisions, abjured. Simplicity. He’d craved that. And now, he had it.

What he was able to do still was sit on the bench in front of his hut and watch the world go by. Except the world didn’t go by here, it stood pretty much still. Or so it would seem. And he knew, of course, that this wasn’t true, that nothing stood still, that everything was in motion, always. He found it comforting. Disconcerting too, but comforting; and he’d said so. He’d said so and had been quoted as saying so too.

With each day that passed, winter became more present and more unreal: the snowflakes tumbling from the skies like clumsy, half-frozen bumble bees out of a freezer up in the cloud. There was something in him still that reminded him of the kindness of people, and he let one or two of these snowflakes alight on his hand, and they melted and ceased to exist. How sad, he thought to himself, how just and, yes, how poetic. And he recalled once upon a time being a poet, and that’s when he decided to capture and keep them. Not all of them, obviously, only some. And to collect them. To preserve them. He knew this was futile and went against nature, but therein exactly lay the exquisite sensation of thrill and deep satisfaction. To do something that was futile and that went against nature, but that would be indescribably beautiful. That was more than existing, that went beyond breathing and eating and sleeping and defecating and shaking in anger and dreaming and imagining and sitting and thinking: that was living. That was imbuing the accidental presence of clusters of mass-manifest energy in this constellation with something that surpassed everything, something divine, something purposeful and profound, something quintessentially and incomparably human: meaning.

> 2: His Task Would Be Immense