December 24, 2004

I am not, of course, Mr. Grahame. This was written for Merlin Missy for the 2004 while we tell of yuletide treasure challenge. Thanks to elynross, who very kindly uploaded for me. Do not archive this story without permission.

Snow on snow

The winter came on early that year, and a bitter, dry, cold winter it was, freezing the land and sending all little animals into their burrows to huddle together for safety and comfort. Frost glittered on the tall, dried grass, and in the turned-up fields the brown earth was hard as stone and rimed with white crystals. Every morning, the Rat and the Mole woke and went to the front door and looked out on the River, where ice crept slowly from the banks out towards the brisk run of water in the center, where the current flowed most strongly, and then they went back into their parlor and sat before the fire, warming their paws, and toasting crumpets, and telling each other what a dreadful winter it was, and how lucky they were to be safe and snug indoors.

One night, it was so cold that an icy crystal hand seemed to creep into the Rat's riverside residence despite the warming fires, to brush its frozen fingers across their fur and send them shivering, and they each piled the bed high with blankets and comforters, and still lay trembling before they fell asleep. In the morning, when they went to the front door to look out, the Mole gasped. "O, look, Ratty! the River!"

"Oho!" said the Rat. "I have been waiting for this very thing!"

The River had frozen clear across, all that quick, flowing water stopped in its place, and smooth black ice lay from bank to bank. "How very strange it looks," the Mole said softly. Winter had caught the River in its grip, changing it from its free, rushing, moving self to this still, glass-gleaming silence.

"O, we shall have some grand times now!" The Rat clapped him on the back. "Shut the door, now, before all the heat goes out, and let us see about breakfast!"

They breakfasted comfortably and well, and the Rat told Mole all about the fun to be had on the frozen River, how one could comfortably take long walks to places only accessible by boat, and sometimes with difficulty at that, in summer, how one could run, and slip, and slide along the smooth ice, and what a rush and a thrill it was — the Otter being the very best at this particular game, of course, and sliding a much greater distance than anybody else.

"It sounds quite wonderful," the Mole said, catching his friend's enthusiasm, "quite wonderful indeed!" And he was perfectly ready to put the breakfast things aside and rush out and explore this exciting new world, the Ice River.

But after the last piece of toast was eaten, and the dishes cleared away, the Rat grew sleepy and sluggish, as he often did in the winter, and the Mole could see that his friend wanted nothing so much as to dream over his poetry, and nap before the fire. Being a kind, considerate sort of Mole, he forbore to mention his own longing to be outside and doing. He washed up the breakfast dishes, and bustled about for a while, tidying and dusting, and making sure everything was quite snug, and that no cold draft came in from any window or door.

A faint sound from the fire made the Mole turn and look and there the Rat was, drowsing, his head nodding towards his chest, the pen having fallen from his lax hand to roll across the floor.

"You know, Ratty," the Mole said to his sleeping friend, "I think I'll just go out for a short little turn along the River. I shall be back before you know it."

He put on his cap and his goloshes, and his very warmest muffler, wrapping it well around his neck, and ventured outside. The sky was a pale, dull grey, and there was no wind at all, so that the black branches of the trees stood out clear and sharp. The Mole stepped out onto the frozen River, took two steps, slipped, and sat down rather abruptly. He scrambled to his feet again, and looked around to see if any of the ducks were there to laugh at him, but no one was about, and step by careful step he made his way, learning as he went how to walk on the slippery surface.

After a while, he grew bolder, and took a few brisk steps for speed, and went sliding just as the Rat had said, waving his arms for balance and laughing happily to himself. This was indeed a splendid game! The Mole ran, and slid, and slid, and ran, and without quite noticing how it came about, went a great distance along the River, and found himself by and by in a place he barely recognized.

The Mole looked around, at the riverbanks, and at the fields and trees beyond them. Things looked quite different in winter, stark and bare, though he found them pleasing enough; the woods had a clean beauty that drew him. But although he was very much braver, and more experienced, and more respected, and altogether an entirely different Mole than the one who had wandered lost in the Wild Woods the previous winter, still he thought perhaps he would not go into the woods today. Besides, he hadn't brought his cudgel.

As he stood there on the ice, wondering where to go next, it seemed to him that he had been here before. A strange feeling rose within him, a kind of sad longing, as for something he would never see again, yet still felt compelled to search for. Following the prompting deep inside of that strange and solemn feeling, the Mole went forward, turning away from the River and onto the narrower icy path of a backwater, his paws and his nose and his heart all telling him that this was, indeed, the way he wanted to go.

He went on more quietly now, not with the same merry run and rush and slip and slide as before, and watched the riverbanks, where dry grass curled and frozen sedge stood sentry, as if they were old friends. When the banks fell away and he came out into the open, the Mole nodded, unsurprised.

The great cold of the winter had conquered even the weir. It lay still and silent, frozen just as smooth and black as the River, and there was no rumble and whirr, no merry dancing foam. In the middle of the weir was a small island, stripped by winter, plain and bare. The Mole ventured out across that shining expanse, heart thudding in his chest, eyes fixed on the island.

"Why," he said to himself as he reached it, "I have been here before, indeed. This is where we found little Portly." And he looked about, seeing the crab-apple stiff and silent, and the tangle of sloe with sharp spikes tipped with frost, and tried to remember the very place where the little otter had lain sleeping, but somehow, his memory would not quite fix on it. The Mole, without being able to explain to himself why it was, grew agitated, and walked back and forth, searching. There was something here — there had been something here—

Yes. Here. This was the place, he knew in his bones. This was a place of awe and reverence, and it seemed to him (though the memory was dim and wavery and strange, as the memory of a dream), that he had stood once here in this very spot, and been seen, and known, and loved, and safe, and protected. The Mole looked up at the sky, which had turned a dull pewter, and quite all of a sudden he noticed how very cold his paws were, and how hungry and alone he was, and tears rose to his eyes.

This was the place, the very place his heart told him about, and he could not stand to be here; the sadness and loss he felt was too great, and he too small and gentle an animal to bear it. The Mole scrambled down from the island again, and hurried back towards the dark mouth of the backwater, slipping and sliding and falling and getting up all in a scramble, knowing only that he must get away before the feelings inside overwhelmed him.

As the Mole scurried along the ice of the backwater, his heart and his paws aching, something white and wet landed on his nose. He looked up, and saw that the sky was full of snowflakes, small sharp ones like stars, hissing down in the rising wind. Soon, flurries of snow rose and fell along the surface of the ice, dancing this way and that, piling into drifts and then scattering again as the wind gusted more fiercely.

"It is very fortunate," the Mole told himself, blowing on his paws, "that I know where I am going. All I have to do is follow the River." The sky was now entirely dark overhead, but the snow was white and blinding, blowing into his eyes. He knew that any moment now he would come to the place where the backwater joined the River itself, and he knew which way he would turn then, and after that he would just go along the River until he saw the lights of home.

It was so very hard to see through the snow, though the Mole tried to shield his eyes with one paw, peering forward. He thought he saw the riverbank fall away, and hurried forward, eager to come out on the River.

A sharp crack made him jump, and when he came down again he slipped, and went sliding, rolling over and over before he came to a stop. The Mole's first terrified thought was that the ice was breaking up, and he would be drawn into the icy water below. He struggled to his feet and looked about, but all he could see was the snow, falling heavily and tossing this way and that in the wind, always somehow finding his eyes, no matter how he turned around. The Mole thought he saw a riverbank in one direction, and a riverbank in another - or was that merely darkness, for now it was getting to be quite late, and though the snow was white, everything else was black. Somehow, in his slipping and his rolling, he had got quite turned around, and he could no longer tell which way he ought to go.

The Mole shook his head and looked about himself fearfully. He knew this place, and he knew the River well enough now, but he could not see where to go, and he could not smell anything besides snow. He turned this way and that, taking one step in one direction, and then another in the opposite, uncertain and agitated. When he turned around again, he saw something not far away, something black and jagged across the ice, and he gasped — the ice had cracked! nearly underneath his very goloshes! The Mole stood frozen with apprehension.

But that black jagged thing was rather high to be a crack in the ice, and after another moment, the Mole thought he saw it shift a little, as if moved by the wind. He crept closer, and finally saw that it was a tree branch, fallen from some great tree on the riverbank, and surely that must have been the loud and terrible cracking sound he had heard before.

And on the other side of the tree branch, the wind whisked the snow aside, and the Mole saw a single print set somehow into the ice itself, the print of a large hoof.

"I think — I do think—" The Mole found his voice fading into the wind, but tried again. "I think perhaps I should go this way." And so he clambered across the tree branch, being unwilling to go around it lest snow should cover the hoofprint and cause him to lose sight of it, and he set his nose in the right direction, and walked on, as stoutly and bravely as he knew how.

The Mole walked, and walked, and walked. It seemed impossible to him that he had come so far, before; it had seemed so easy this morning to slide along the ice, and now he fought for every step, as the snow whipped about his head, and slipped down into his goloshes, and the wind nearly yanked his cap and muffler away. Impossible that he had gone this far, but just when he was about to lose heart, he saw another hoofprint, and the wave of sadness and longing that rose in him seemed very nearly comforting, this time, as he hurried on, falling on the ice, and getting up again, and walking, and walking.

At long last, he saw a light ahead, swaying and moving. He struggled towards it, and heard over the whistle of the wind a familiar voice calling, "Mole! Moly!"

"Here! Ratty, I am here," the Mole cried in return, moving his tired legs faster, until he came up on his friend and ran into him, nearly bowling the both of them over. The Rat held a lanthorn and carried a staff with a sharp metal tip, which he used to steady himself on the ice. The Mole embraced him. "I am so very glad to see you," he said.

"Foolish Mole," the Rat said, shaking his head fondly. "Come now, let us hurry home!"

They held on to each other so as not to be separated, and it was much easier to walk two against the wind, and lean on each other for support and for balance. Soon enough, they were back at their own front door, and tumbled inside, shaking off the snow. The Mole struggled out of his goloshes, shaking with cold. "I'm sorry," he said penitently. "I just wanted to go a little bit on the ice. The snow took me by surprise."

The Rat pulled him into the parlor, and sat him down in the chair nearest the fire, and wrapped a blanket around him. "Sit here and get yourself warm," he said. "I'll find you something hot to drink, and both of us a bite to eat." He bustled off, and the Mole stretched his cold paws towards the fire, feeling its warmth begin to comfort him.

In a very short while, the Rat came back with a mug of hot toddy for the Mole, and another one for himself, and with bread and cheese and butter and honey. The Mole sipped at the toddy, and watched the Rat begin to toast the bread, and warmth seemed to flow through him, inside and out, easing away the chill of the snow and the lingering melancholy in his heart. The Rat handed him up a piece of toast, done just as he liked it and dripping with butter.

It seemed to the Mole, as he sat there with his toddy and his toast, telling his friend about his adventures on the ice, that it was a very fine thing to be snug at home by the fire, and to be seen, and known, and loved, and safe, and protected. He thought perhaps he would spend the next day right here, drowsing a little, and talking, and hearing the Rat work on his poetry, while the cold winter storm raged outside.

"The snow cannot touch us here," the Mole said contentedly, and the Rat handed him another piece of toast, and leaned back against the legs of his chair, and they sat together in comfortable silence.

* * *

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