Everything Was Winter
by Heather J. Frederick
Everything was winter: the white fields, snow-blinding and forever, stiff carcasses on the roadside too old or too slow, air still numbingly cold when it reached his lungs.
Last year’s boots squeezing his toes, chapped, bleeding cheeks, and every day on the way to school, the knitted wool hat with the puffy pom-pom. Thomas had lost the hat once and his mother promptly knit him a new one. He’d smuggled a pair of blunt scissors from art class to deal with the startling orange atrocity, but she replaced it with one even bigger and more secure.
The hat itched, curled up at the bottom like a girl’s skirt, and had earned him the nickname “Pom-Tom.”
The snow was too cold for snowballs, but they could still throw ice. He came home with a bloody nose and slammed the hat, with an unsatisfactory thud, on the cracked counter. “Why do you make me wear this, Mom?” his ten-year old voice breaking, sounding wrong even to him, though he’d promised himself he wouldn’t cry, again, over a hat.
His father winced, but his mother just said, “Wool is warmer than any synthetic they can make here.”
Here was the problem. Nine months ago they’d left behind their equatorial home for his dad’s job in the West Virginia mines. Three months into “spring” and he hadn’t seen any of the “tropical” birds he’d spent years memorizing. According to the school librarian, his only friend so far, he never would.
“All the true tropical birds are extinct, of course,” she explained. “And your Canada goose, your cardinal, none of them survived this far North after the ice age. With any luck, you might find a winter lark. They’re an omen of strength.” She winked, conspiring adult to lonely child. “And good luck.”
“I hate it here.” The sniffling of tears, mixing with blood, caused a torrent he couldn’t control.
“Don’t wipe that on your sleeve!” his mother ordered. She came at him with a towel and pressed it, too hard, to his nose. “We can’t afford to buy you a new coat every time you get a nosebleed.”
He heard his father’s usual snort and knew what was coming next. “Living here isn’t for the weak, Tommy boy. It’ll toughen you up.” In other words, Stop crying over the damn hat. And stop getting beat up at school, while you’re at it.
Tommy pushed his mother’s hand away and hung his head, even though he knew he was supposed to hold it back. He grabbed the hat, jammed it against his nostrils, and went to bed.
* * *
On the way to school the next day, he wore the blood-stained hat.
“Did you think I could knit one overnight?” His mother’s arms were folded across her robe above its ever-shrinking waist, her eyebrows drawn together above her nose, everything about her closed and tight.
“Tricks like this won’t get you a new hat, Tommy boy,” said his father, already dressed for the mines in thick, heavy overalls. “Just make do.”
He made do. It was a block and a half. By the time he got there... “What’s wrong with your hat, Pom-Tom? Can’t you afford a real one? Awww, did you trip and fall over your own feet yesterday? Maybe you got scared by a bird, Pom-Tom!”
His lips were cracked and he had balled up his fingers in the palms of his gloves. But at least his head was warm.
Just outside the school, moments from shelter, he saw Chloe. Down jacket with her father’s hockey team logo on the back, aviator hat and snow goggles, and long, long legs that even in her insulated pants looked like a dancer’s, ending in fur-lined boots. Looking at her dark skin made Thomas feel warm, as if she stored the sun and could reflect it back to him. Maybe it was the way she stood, her back straight, or the way she talked, waving her arms out for emphasis, as if she wasn’t afraid of winter.
Maybe it was just... her. She actually said, once, that she liked his hat.
Surrounding her was a group of boys. Three out of the four had chased Thomas down yesterday. She looked up and waved to him, but as the boys moved to follow her glance, he huddled his shoulders and let the building swallow him.
* * *
“What happened to your hat?”
Art class, a voice behind him. It was Chloe, sitting at a table with all girls, all watching her watching him.
“What do you mean?” He caught a glimpse of her charcoal drawing — a self-portrait. She’d drawn an accurate likeness of herself, but with the complicated braids and make-up of a much older girl.
“All that blood. It was such a nice hat.”
Too surprised to lie, he sputtered, “I had a nosebleed.” He laid an elbow across his drawing, knowing it would smudge, but trying to hide his amateur, almost cartoonish, rendition.
“My mom taught me how to knit. I could make you a new one. Any color you want.”
“Something other than orange? Without a pom-pom?”
She laughed. “How about black? With a lightning bolt?”
The teacher shushed them both, and for the rest of the day Thomas replayed the way their names had sounded together: “Thomas Kahill and Chloe Marie Tennant,” and he realized no other name had ever sounded quite so perfect to him before.
* * *
Walking home, he struggled to think of a suitable gift for her. He didn’t have anything to give away; that was why they’d needed to come here in the first place. His head was down, slicing through the wind but barely feeling it, thanks to the pom-pom, when he felt an unmistakable crunch under his boot.
He lifted his foot and underneath it found a crushed winter lark: from its white coloring, a female. Another unlucky victim of winter.
He looked up, afraid of what he’d find.
There was the nest, just above arm’s reach in a spruce tree off the side of the road.
The last time he brought home a nest, his mother had fainted. His father said birds were for sissies.
But if he could find an egg... They were supposed to be beautiful, hardy, and imbued with mystical, even romantic powers.
He climbed slow and steady, gloved hands and boots finding easy purchase on the plentiful boughs. When he could reach the nest, he pulled it slowly to him and saw one green and blue speckled egg as large as his hand. The shell was thick and crystalline, holding the promise of jewel-like magnificence were the sun to ever shine on it. He tucked it into his jacket and climbed just as carefully down.
Was there any chance the egg had survived the minutes or hours without its mother? He decided not. The egg would make the perfect gift, for the perfect girl.
* * *
He placed the egg under his pillow that night. Sleep eluded him for hours. She was his first crush, he realized, and this terrible, gnawing hunger that threatened to eat right through him must be love.
Love made heroes out of wimps. Love made you tough. Winter just ate you alive. So the next day, his heart pounding, cheeks blushing madly and beyond what anyone could believe just from cold, he approached her in her gaggle of admirers before school. “Chloe?”
She swiveled on a boot heel and faced him. “Oh, Thomas. Hey.”
“Hey, Pom-Tom,” said one of the boys next to her. He was older, taller, dressed in dark, heavy, expensive clothes that let him swagger through the cold. He casually swiped the hat off Thomas’s head and clutched it out of reach.
Curved around his egg, tucked warm against his belly in his Dad’s old corduroy jacket, Thomas let it go. Within seconds his ears burned at the wind’s bite.
Love gave him strength. “Can I show you something, Chloe? Inside?”
She shrugged and followed him into the building, a thick, brick igloo with two classrooms for each grade spaced around a wood-stove heated, skylight illuminated square that served as playroom and auditorium.
He boldly grabbed her gloved hand and led her there through the crowds. As a fifth-grader, he shouldn’t have felt intimidated by the boisterous noise of the younger kids. But it was only today, attached to her, that he finally felt he belonged.
Near the center of the room, a shaft of smudged sunlight fell on the floor from one of many skylights. He stood underneath it and removed his gloves, then carefully reached into his coat and held out the egg in both hands.
He let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. It was a rare sunny day. The egg sparkled, intensely so. Hues of violet and deep ruby played between the facets of blue and emerald green. For a moment he just stared. It was the most beautiful thing his ten-year old heart had ever beheld, and the strain of comprehending it almost ached. There was no understanding. There was just beauty.
Chloe let out a soft groan of delight. “Oooo, it’s gorgeous!”
“It’s for you,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse.
“But why?” She removed her gloves and held her hand out, not understanding but willing to take anyway.
“Because of the hat... The hat you said you would knit for me.”
“But I was just—”
Just as he reached to place the egg in her hand, just as she cut off her about to be lethal sentence, he felt a knocking in the egg, and held back. His eyes met hers in a moment of naked emotion that neither of them knew how to end.
She dropped her head and ran for one of the room’s many exits. He dropped his head and watched, through stinging, blurry eyes, as the egg began to hatch.
But I was just kidding.
This was the beginning of life in winter. This was the end of love. The shell broke apart in crumbling clumps under the crystal glaze. His first glimpse of the wet, writhing body beyond the beak filled him with horror, and he ran back through the halls, through the thinning crowds of children, back into winter, and stood finally on the step, his hands and ears freezing while he watched the rest of the gruesome emergence.
The beautiful colored glaze cracked, and then there was nothing between him and the fledgling. It clawed and clawed at his hands, kneading to dig deeper into the nest for warmth, and all he could do was shake his hand, shake it hard, trying to fling it off. Finally it let go, and landed on the sidewalk, motionless.
He went back inside. Lost and Found might have an extra hat.
In winter, only the strong survive.
Copyright © 2013 by Heather J. Frederick