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Child of Snow

Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for many major awards, and she has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award.

Nina's novels have been published by Avon, Ace, Scholastic, Tachyon, and Viking. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.

Nina does magazine production work and teaches writing. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

The man I learned to call Papa came home from a five-year journey the winter I turned three years old.
He was large, and his pale face was hidden behind a thick, dark beard. All of the rest of him was wrapped in snowy clothes and furs, and he carried a pack on his back. When he saw me, red flickered in his eyes.
Mama gave him her chair by the fire. She fed the fire so it rose and raged, and he removed his stinking fur jacket and overpants. His garments steamed as the snow on them melted. When he took off his boots, the ripe stench from his feet chased all other scents from our hearth.
Mama warmed wine on the stove and added spices. She ladled stew from the pot over the fire into the biggest bowl from the shelf, the one we never used, and set it on the table by her chair.
"Who is this child too young to be mine?" the stranger asked Mama.
Mama said, "Snow is his father. I went out to feed the cow during a winter storm," she said, "and the wind blew my skirts up, and snow came in underneath. Nine months later came this babe. His name is Ice. He is a bonny babe, wise and good, only three years old and already speaking. So strong he is, and so helpful!"
The edges of Papa's mouth under his mustache tugged down into a frown. Then he smiled with all but his eyes. "Well, how fortunate Snow could give you the son I could not." He rubbed his big, calloused hand over my hair. His hand was warm on my head, yet it cupped cold in its palm, colder than any weather I'd ever felt.
"Show Papa how you help, Ice," said Mama.
I took my bucket out into the winter night, and filled it with snow.
Sleet whipped past the golden light from the small windows in the thick walls of our cottage. The wind brushed my cheek in a caress, then hugged me. I closed my eyes and welcomed that cold embrace. Then I took the snow inside and set it by the fire to melt.
Mama kissed my forehead. "Thank you, my sweet. Will you play a tune for your papa?"
I got the wooden flute Mama had made me and sat in my chair away from the fire. While Papa ate and drank, I played "Noel Nouvelet."
After the last note, Papa smiled. "Yes, he is clever. And I am weary."
I put my flute away.
Papa said, "I brought home treasure, my love. 'Tis why I've been gone so long. To find the price I wanted for the jewels I found in the forest, I traveled far. I missed you every moment." He brought his pack to the big table by the kitchen window, and shook out its contents. In addition to his bedroll, three loaves of journey bread wrapped in waxed paper, and clothes heavy with dirt and stink, a small purse fell out. He upended it and spilled gold coins on the table. "I know you've dreamed of a better life, my love. Now we can have it."
"Oh, Peter!" Mama hugged and kissed him. "At last we can move into town!"
In the thirteen years that followed, I learned to stay out of Papa's way. He never hit me, but nor did he ever look at me with fondness. We lived in half a house in town, and Mama was happy to be close to friends, and to buy bread instead of bake her own, and to walk to all the shops in minutes instead of hours. I liked town, too, though winter wasn't as strong there. Mama used some of the money from the sale of the blankets she wove to buy reading and calculating lessons for me with a divinity student.
Papa wanted to apprentice me to the blacksmith.
The fire made me sick.
I made some money taking people around through the snow, finding them solid footing, and clearing snow from paths. For me, it moved aside. In spring and summer, I went up into the hills to find fruits, herbs, and roots to sell.
Papa carved miraculous things from wood he cut in the forest. Some he sold, but the best he set aside.
I was sixteen by the time he decided he had built up enough inventory. He said, "It's time for me to journey south again. This time I'll take Ice with me."
"Oh, Papa, must you?" Mama asked.
"It's time he learned more of the world."
Mama hugged me hard before we left the house, and I held onto her until Papa grasped my shoulder and pulled me away.
We took a ship over the sea to a port on the southern continent, where people burned dark by sunlight lived in sand lands and wore few clothes, and those brightly colored.
Papa had me pull a cart of wares, for he had brought not only his own carvings, but other things easy to get in our northern home and rare here--dried forest fruits, pine nuts, thick-furred animal pelts. I had pulled the cart easily when we left the north, but here in the sunny south, it felt very heavy.
Papa led me to the marketplace, a wonder of cloth-roofed stalls bright with red and orange and yellow fruits I had never seen before, cloth spun fine and colored golden and purple and night-sky blue, treats and goods I didn't recognize. Languages flowed around us with words that sounded like birdcalls and tools clinking against each other, and the smells were sharp and sweet and spicy.
Papa took the cart from me and paid a man to watch it, then took me to a different, stinking market place. Here a man stood on a dais and gestured to chained children, men, and women, led up on the dais one at a time. He spoke as he pointed to their features. Men crowded around the dais, studying the people on display, calling out in languages I did not know.
Papa stood behind me, his hands clamped on my shoulders, and we watched until I understood the nature of this commerce.
"Here, Ice, I shall sell you," Papa whispered to me. "When I get home with my new riches, I shall tell your faithless mother you melted."
I stumbled as he pushed me forward and gave me to a bearded man beside the dais. The man's eyes gleamed as he looked at me. He spoke to Papa in an alien tongue, and Papa nodded and stepped away.
Papa had never been kind to me, but he had never hurt me before.
I mourned for my mother, who loved me and would miss me, and whom I knew I would never see again.
I mourned for my lost self.
A boy and a girl were sold, and then the bearded man led me up onto the dais, and the other one, the auctioneer, spoke about me. He took my shirt off and showed my pale torso to the hungry-eyed men.
They bid on me.
In my core I felt all the cold of winter. I closed my eyes and invited the cold to take me. Snow, my father, freeze and save me.
I had not ever called to my father this way before. At home, I could walk out into winter to find the cold I craved.
Even in this sunbaked place, cold had a toehold, and it climbed out of the shadows to embrace me.
Snow swirled around me. People cried out. I looked at the auctioneer. He tried to grab my shoulders and fell back as the cold in me scorched him.
I looked at all the sun-loving bidders. My father, paler than these southern folk, stood to the back of the crowd. His eyes were wide, his mouth open.
I pulled my shirt back on and strode away from that market of souls, snow traveling with me. At the harbor, sea froze under my feet. I walked out to a ship with a name I could read, climbed aboard, and asked for passage.
"Can you control the weather?" the captain asked.
I called the snow back inside me. Warmth surrounded me.
"Can you control the winds?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Can you work hard?"
"That I can do," I said.
"I'll give you passage to the next port in exchange for hard work. We will see how it goes from there."
"Thanks, Captain. You won't regret it."
Thus I worked my way back to Winter.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 26th, 2018

Author Comments

My local writers' group, the Wordos, hosts several annual holiday-themed short-short read-aloud meetings. We usually brainstorm suggested themes. "Child of Snow" came from a combination of the theme "Sentient Snow" and a reading of Snow Child folktales. I wrote it for our Winter Holiday reading.

In the folktales, nobody ever seems to consider what the Snow Child thinks. It made me wonder.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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