The Snowflake Collector – 11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man

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.

10: George <

> 12: There Was Nothing Now But the Snow

The Snowflake Collector – 5: He Had Abandoned the Notion of ‘Hurry’

With daylight hours gradually usurped by darkness now, and cooler, longer nights now spreading their still presence over the valley, The Snowflake Collector set about his endeavour.

After the early snowfall towards the end of October, which had soon ceased and given way to one more spell of golden autumn with spice in the air, winter had now been sending more heralds, tentatively, at first, but unmistakably nonetheless, and welcome. While he knew now how to collect snowflakes and knew what things he needed to obtain, and what things to make, before he could do so, The Snowflake Collector was in no hurry. It had been many years since he had last allowed the world to impose on him any ‘hurry’, and it had revealed itself to him so futile then, so unnecessary and unnecessarily restless, that he had abandoned the notion of ‘hurry’ altogether, never to seek it out again, or permit it to return.

It would suffice completely, he knew, to collect one, maybe two snowflakes to begin with. Better, he thought to himself, do this and do this well than to rush into constructing a shed – indispensable as it would undoubtedly be – or building the sturdy boxes for the delicately crafted cases. No, he would build a case, yes, from wood he had already stored under the roof by the side of his hut, and he would cut some plates from glass he knew where to buy, and he would use some of the superglue that had been languishing in his tool box for years, but never been opened, and he would collect one or two, or maybe three snowflakes and see how that felt, how at home they would be in the case he would build.

So when Yanosh next wandered up the narrow path towards the end of the valley to sit outside The Snowflake Collector’s hut and maybe nod ‘hello’ at him, maybe not, he found him there in the late autumn sunshine sawing pieces of wood. He was not a master carpenter, The Snowflake Collector, but he had for many years now been living on his own in his hut, and soon after moving here he had purchased, for very little money, a small plot of land further down the valley, right by the stream, where there were already some firs, and where he now planted, for every old one he cut down, two young trees; and so he had, over time, gained enough experience making things out of wood to do so confidently, and well. Yanosh nodded what may have been a ‘hello’ to The Snowflake Collector, and The Snowflake Collector understood and nodded back what to most people might have been barely noticeable, but to Yanosh, with similar certainty, signalled ‘hello’.

It would often be the case now that Yanosh would find The Snowflake Collector thus or otherwise engaged in preparing his snowflake collection. He never explained what he was doing and Yanosh never asked, because to both it was obvious, but Yanosh enjoyed watching The Snowflake Collector at work, because there was a calm determination and purpose to what he was doing, and The Snowflake Collector was at ease in these tasks, for the very same reason. Sometimes Yanosh would hold up a long plank of wood or pass a tool or pick up a piece of glass that had fallen to the ground, but mostly he would just sit there and watch as The Snowflake Collector went about his new business.

Having never collected snowflakes before, or anything else for that matter, it did not surprise The Snowflake Collector, and nor did it surprise Yanosh, that not everything did go smoothly.

The first case he built, although beautiful and smooth, with clean but not sharp edges and a convenient handle at the narrow top, turned out to be useless as it was simply too large. It had looked, in The Snowflake Collector’s imagination, and in his rudimentary drawings which were not quite to scale, exactly right, but it came out not so. Once he had filled it with glass plates, each three inches long and one inch wide, it was too heavy for him to lift easily off his work bench, and so he started over again.

He also realised only now that he would not, after all, need to build sturdy boxes for these cases. He would simply have to build the cases themselves sturdy enough, and for the cases he would have to construct a formidable shed in which he would need to fit strong shelves evenly spaced, but there was no need, in reality, for another, intermediate layer of housing for his snowflakes, just as long as the cases were sound.

It was not until the second week of December that The Snowflake Collector was ready to collect his first snowflake. By then he had made and destroyed a first case for snowflakes that had turned out to be unwieldy and large, and he had made and dismantled a second case, which had been the right size and shape, but in which the glass plates that were to hold the snowflakes did not sit snugly enough, but rattled when he closed the lid and lifted the case off the bench, and this, The Snowflake Collector was certain, would not do. Having dismantled the case, he then saw that there was no easy way to fix the inadequacy, say by adjusting the slot width for the glass plates which had too much give, and so he discarded this second case too and made a third, better one. This, he found, when he slid all the glass plates he had by now cut from large sheets of plain glass – cutting himself several times in the process and once very painfully so – to be if not perfect then sufficiently solid and sturdy and strong.

By now there had been snowfall on several more occasions. But The Snowflake Collector was glad that circumstances had conspired, and maybe he and his subconscious mind had conspired with them, to make him wait until now, until very nearly the beginning of Winter, before he commenced his immense undertaking. He was not a stickler for rules, and it would have disquieted, even appalled, him to know himself one who awaited the ‘official’ date for the start of the season, or anything else, but if there was one thing The Snowflake Collector believed to be true then it was that to every thing there is a season, and while he had not given it any elaborate or conscious thought, he felt instinctively that the time for collecting snowflakes had not come, until now.

Now, towards the end of the second week of December, with the feast of St Nicholas already gone and the days in the valley short now and sombre when the sun wasn’t shining, and crisp and cold and still very short when it was, The Snowflake Collector woke up one morning from a night of fitful sleep with no dream that he could recall, and as he opened his eyes and glanced from his narrow hard bed to the small cross hatched window, which in all the years he had lived here had never been curtained, he saw that there was snow on the sill and there were big heavy snowflakes tumbling again from the sky, as there had been on that day when he had resolved to become The Snowflake Collector, which now seemed eternities in the past, but which was only in fact some six weeks ago, at barely the end of October.

His heart leapt at the sight, because he knew that this was the day, that the hour had come, that the convergence of all things leading up to now had finally made this Now possible, and real. With calm, serene joy, he rose from his bed, lit the fire in the stove, performed his rudimentary and no more than essential ablutions, dressed warmly and went to the kitchen where, in a small freezer compartment of his small refrigerator he had chilled a small stack of glass plates, much as Yanosh had instructed him to.

With three of them he went outside, picking up from the kitchen drawer the small tube of superglue he had placed there in preparation, and in front of his hut he put everything down on his bench. There he carefully dabbed a drop of glue on a frozen glass plate and, holding the plate in his hand, raised his eyes to the sky.

4: And He Had Many Memories <

> 6: A Snowflake Not Unlike Him

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