It was the three hundred and fifty-sixth year of winter, and this he wrote in the Book of Cold. Walter flipped the pages of the now wilting tome, and read his favourite parts once again, mumbling under his breath, carefully thumbing through the frozen pages that threatened to crumble under his touch.
The Signs of the Warm-time, Colors of the Sun, Sun Signs, The Seed and The Soil – he enjoyed each chapter as much now, as when he had first scrawled the words – copied them, from the Book of Cold that his father had carried.
In the three hundred and tenth year of winter, his father had died – in a cave much like this one. He’d passed in the night, sick from the winter’s white that had crept up his leg through a hole in his shoe. He had cried in pain for hours at first, then whimpered and then moaned intermittently until the cold blood had reached his heart and then he had died. Walter had stayed with him – with his corpse, in that cave for a whole day, hoping that he would wake up, hoping they’d be on their way again. He’d only been a boy then. He’d wandered many years in the sun-less winter since, to know better. The frozen dead will never wake.
Walter put the book down and checked the soles of his shoes. The lowest layer of plastic was shredded – as he expected. But the inner layers of hide and wool and leather, which had been taped over canvas shoes, were all intact. Still, his toes felt cold. Perhaps, I’ve grown cold on the inside.
There were many ways a man could get sick from the cold. Winter’s white, snow blindness, the cold sleep or frozen lungs. He coughed at that thought. They were tiny weak coughs, but they grated his throat, and his lungs burned furiously on the inside.
“Da? You okay?” a sleepy voice sounded, muffled behind layers of clothing.
He reached out and patted the child on his head, taking the time to brush aside the shambles of blond hair that sprouted beneath the boy’s wolf-skin cap.
“I’m fine. Sleep now.” He lied, trying not to let his breath sound like a wheeze. “Tomorrow we climb.”
The boy nodded with his eyes still closed, and the corner of his mouth quivered briefly into a smile. Walter softly hugged him and then turned to check on the second most precious thing he carried with him. It was inside his bag, inside a box – wrapped with plastic and cloth and anything he thought would keep it safe. It was a cylinder made of thick glass. Inside, a white fog swirled around a single seed. The seed was suspended in the fog, never touching the glass walls, vibrating slightly in response to Walter’s touch. He stared at it in silence, his breaths turning to anxious foggy puffs. When he was satisfied, he turned the cylinder to look at the bottom where a row of lights blinked just as they had when he’d taken the cylinder from his father’s dead hands. They were counting down. To what end, he did not know.
He shoved the cylinder back into its womb, inside the bag and closed his eyes. As he fell asleep, in his mind he read the last pages of The Seed and The Soil, hearing his father’s voice narrate it to him in his dreams.
“The seed-man wanders the earth in search of the Soil – the ground as it was before the snow. When both Seed and Soil are found, he must wait for Signs of the Warm-time. He must find all three, the Seed, the Soil and the Signs – this shall be his task from this day till the end.”
“What must you do, if I die?” Walter asked, his hands gripping the boy’s shoulders tightly, almost shaking him.
The boy did not answer, only looked away with a frown.
“Say it William – What must you do, if I die?” He spoke with effort, feeling every word rasping his lungs.
“Take the Book of Cold and copy it . . .” The boy pulled out a crudely crafted rod of graphite. The end had been sharpened to a point.
“The seed-man must read the words and write them – know them in his heart.”
“And then what must you do?”
“Take the Seed and the Book – put them in the bag – keep them safe and head west to the next marker on the map.”
The boy looked up at him with concern – his brow furrowing with worry until he finally asked, “You won’t die will you, Da?” His eyes welled up; the tears stung in the cold.
Walter kissed the boy on his cheek and held him close until the tears stopped and turned into frosty streaks on the boy’s face. “I won’t,” he smiled until the boy reciprocated, and then added, “But we must never stop searching; forever circling the map until we return to the Sanctum. And then we start again.” He paused and wondered if the boy truly understood. No one ever understands. He’ll be twice as old as he is now, when he returns to the Sanctum – if he returns.
“You remember what the book says?” He raised an eyebrow to the boy, who nodded.
The Seedman wanders, the Soilman stays. To the end of winters and the coming of days.
“We’re looking for the Soilmen. This is where they lived, when I was last here.” Walter said to the man in front of them, shouting above the screaming wind, between gasps of breath. They’d climbed a long way, through snow and ice and white blizzards. The air got thinner, colder and cut like a knife but Walter had in his time, climbed through much worse.
It wasn’t the cold air. It was the cold in his lungs that made him gasp – frozen tissue refusing to ply, to take air in. He stood there bent at the waist, both palms resting on his knees, trying his best not to throw up. The boy looked worried. I have to be strong – for him.
“None o’ them here n’more – ‘cept ol Simon,” The man who sat in front of them said. “Him, below the last roof there.” He spoke in slurring half-words through numb lips.
He looked terrible. Half his face had frozen and gone black. His cheeks and lips drooped, and there was a crescent of grey-pink flesh where the skin sagged below his cloudy eye. Behind him, the ruins of some old place of concrete and steel yawned. The wind blew through the rooms, creating little piles of snow at each window, causing the empty rooms to howl like a discordant choir.
“Simon’s mind be gone now – he be up n croaking soon.” The man added from a distance as they made their way toward Simon.
They found Simon sitting on an old bench outside a broken place that had once been a house. It was now a ruin, half buried in the snow – broken with gaping holes in places. Parts of it had been scavenged. Anything that would burn had been taken and used. The charred remains of many fires by Simon’s feet stood in silent testimony.
“Simon?” Walter kneeled in the snow by the old man, who showed no signs of having heard him. His eyes stared vacantly into the distance from deep within their sockets. The only movement was his long grey beard fluttering in the wind as bits of snow and ice tangled in the hair.
“We’re Seedmen, Simon – here in search of the Soil. I was here before – do you remember me?” Walter asked but did not expect to get an answer. I don’t remember anyone from the last time, why would he?
They tried waving their arms in front of his eyes or even gently shaking him, hoping that he would snap out of his waking coma, but it was to no avail. The boy seemed scared. He’d never seen a man dead on the inside but awake on the out. The cold will do that to you boy – chill you so deep inside that you leave and never come back. Walter had almost decided to give up, when the boy reached inside Walter’s bag and pulled out the cylinder, uncovering it before holding it in front of Simon’s face.
“Seedmen, see?” The boy spoke in slow and purposefully stretched words. His hands were trembling – from the cold, from desperation.
Simon’s eyes shifted then, slowly returning from the distance, pupils shrinking to focus on the tiny green seed floating inside the gentle fog.
For a few brief moments, his eyes trembled inside their sockets madly before he reached out with his wiry hands and grabbed the cylinder in the boy’s hands. His joints cracked like thawing ice, and with a great heaving breath, he half-shouted at the boy.
“Do they blink, still? The lights under the glass!” He peered with one open eye under the cylinder.
“Put it back! Put it inside! The cold will worm its way in.” as he said this, his grip tightened around the boy’s trembling palms with each word.
The boy for his part refused to let go of the cylinder and fell backward with a yank, cupping the cylinder close to his chest. This only served to send Simon into a frenzy with his hands flailing violently and his lips mumbling incoherent curses.
“Simon! Simon! . . .” Walter calmed him, holding the man by his shoulders.
The convulsing shakes of his head subsided, and the curses quieted to whimper as Simon once again returned to his frozen state.
“Where is the soil, Simon? Have you seen it?” Walter asked.
He expected to hear the same answer he’d heard the last time – the same he’d heard before that and his father before him. That the soil hadn’t been seen, not in hundreds of years. That he was a fool to keep wandering this frozen waste of a world – that whatever hope the world held on to, had long been smothered under an unrelenting blanket of snow.
Seedmen and Soilmen! Do I believe in these words I scrawled in a book? Stories were once written in books, and perhaps that’s all they ever are.
Still, he waited. Somewhere inside him a fool, still unfrozen, held on to the idea of a happy ending. It was all he had to lend himself warmth on fireless nights.
Simon raised his head, and Walter looked into his eyes. They were mad eyes, scouring the inside of Simon’s head, searching for something to say.
“Soil?” Simon’s stare lingered, wondering perhaps if the man and boy were truly there, standing in front of him. His jaw moved involuntarily as if he was chewing on his tongue.
“It is on the other side of Icarus’s fall – further up the climb and round to the other side.” He spat out the words as he pointed with a single bony finger – trembling, struggling to show them the right way.
“Ye’ll have to be digging” He mimed with his warped hands, “Deep under the white. But it’s there all right! I seen it . . . “
He reached out and grabbed Walter by his collar, drawing him close. The old man’s breath was rank, like half frozen, half rotten meat.
“I seen it! The warm in the sky – the light through the grey! I seen it!” and with that he let go, his breath now coming in small foggy gasps. Walter was on his knees in front of the old man, and the boy was by his side. They watched as Simon receded slowly, back into his waking sleep, letting the cold take over his body.
As they walked on, the boy turned and looked back at Simon through a light flurry of snow. He seemed different than when they had found him. His head now hung loosely, chin digging into his chest. He was dying – the boy knew it.
He’d had hung on to those words. He’d waited all this while in the cold to say them.
When the darkened sky breaks and the fire beyond warms the earth. Shatter the glass and bury the seed. Watch over it – shield it from the falling snow. The roots shall take, and the green shall grow.
The climb to Icarus’s fall was longer than they had expected and perilous. Wolves wandered the drifts. Most of them were gaunt and weak – not a threat; merely scavengers foraging around the Soilmen settlements for the corpses of the dead, preserved by the ice. Some were cannibals; the older ones mostly – waiting for the weakest to die. But rarely, there were young wolves, still alive with blood running warm in their veins. They still hunted and would not think twice before attacking them.
Warm food with flowing blood is worth every risk. The cold can drive even the wolves mad.
They had heard the shrill howl of a wolf stalking them up the slope, waiting for them to tire. They had walked as long as they could before Walter’s lungs had refused to co-operate further. Then they dug into the snow, a pit deep enough for them to sleep in and then built a wall around it. They packed in, the loose, powdery snow until it hardened to ice. When they were done, there was an opening only large enough to crawl out of. The ice would keep them warm as they rested; insulating them from the cold wind.
The boy took the first watch as Walter rested. For him, each breath was now a battle against his lungs – muscles tugging the frozen tissue into expanding and forcing them to take in air. His breaths echoed strangely inside the pit like some ghostly accordion. He tried to be quiet for the boy’s sake. Each time Walter peered out the pit, he found the boy looking back at him with worry. Each time, he smiled at the boy uncomfortably and pretended to sleep, but he was afraid. Terrified, that if he did fall asleep, his body would forget to breathe, and he would die there, in that pit, that cave – just like his father had. And his boy would be alone; an innocent seed – clinking emptily in this frozen glass jar of a world.
With time, his lungs did eventually relent. His breathing still sounded labored but not half as horrible as it had before. He craned his neck up, peering out to look at the boy but could not see him – only flurries of snow conspiring to close the opening to their pit, seeking to bury him within.
“William? He called but his voice sounded oddly frail. Curse my lungs. He crawled outside and searched for the boy. There were footprints in the snow, and he might have followed them had he not seen movement in the distance. Beyond the curtains of falling white, a dark grey wolf moved softly, almost gliding along the ground. Their stalker had found them.
The beast slavered and breathed in rabid gasps. Walter stepped away slowly, making his way back toward the snow pit. If he could make it inside, the wolf might be averse to digging its way in. There was no way he could run – not with his lungs.
“William?” He called again – this time loud and clear.
But there was no response. The wolf snarled back at him, baring its teeth, circling him.
He was almost at the pit. Had he moved then, he could have made it inside, but he chose to call once more for the boy and the moment he took his eyes off the wolf, the beast charged, letting lose a great flurry of snow as its hind legs pushed at the ground, throwing the beast into a pouncing leap.
Walter’s knees buckled under him, and he threw his hands up to shield himself from the inevitable bite. He watched stunned and confused as a second beast leapt from the snow and thudded into the wolf, mere inches away from his face. They growled and yelped all at once, tumbling and rolling through the snow.
Then Walter heard the boy’s voice, shocked at its ferocity. The child screamed with anger and terror as he thrust his blade into the beast’s ribs. The wolf struggled under him, its claws raking wildly at the boy – its jaw snapping open and shut over and over again. But the boy was unrelenting. He put all his weight on his arm, holding the wolf’s neck pinned against the ground as his other hand thrust repeatedly under the wolf’s ribs, with a violent grunt each time.
The wolf was long dead by the time the boy stopped. Blood had turned the snow under him dark red and Walter was at his back trying to pull him off the wolf.
“William it’s dead boy! It’s dead!” He had to shout into the boy’s ear before he finally stopped.
They sat there, next to the dead wolf for a while. Walter watched the boy in silence. He was covered with blood, his breath hissing through his nose as he stared at his kill, his jaw clenched, with his teeth showing in a ferocious grin and his hand still curled in a trembling grip around the knife.
“William . . . ” He called to the boy, unsure of what to say.
The boy turned to him slowly. Eventually, he threw down the knife and thudded into his father’s chest, where Walter held him until he stopped shivering.
When they had eaten the wolf’s meat and taken its hide for warmth, they began to climb once again. Icarus’s fall was not far.
The boy walked ahead now, checking the road – for wolves, Walter gathered. The child had not said a word to him since they’d last rested. He only turned back every so often to check that Walter was still behind him. Walter for his part – did his best not to let his lungs slow them down. They were so very close – and if what Simon had seen, were true . . .
It can’t be – no one has seen the sky-fire in ages. The old man was mad -, and I’m going to die here in pursuit of a story. At least I won’t die in a cave . . .
He wheezed at that thought, and it made the boy stop and turn back to him.
“We should rest.” The boy finally spoke, and Walter felt much better hearing his voice.
“No – No – we should – keep going.” He spoke, unable to keep himself from gasping for air in between words.
The boy simply walked back and unpacked some of the wolf’s meat from his bag. He sat down there on the snow and offered a piece of it to Walter. They sat there, chewing on the frozen meat until his breathing got a little better and then they walked the rest of the way to Icarus’s fall. Something had changed with the boy. He wasn’t a child anymore – perhaps the wolf had robbed him of that.
Perhaps the cold had wormed its way in.
Icarus’s fall was not the top of the mountain, but it was close. From there a lot more of the sky was visible and while the land sloped up further, he could tell that there wasn’t much of the mountain left beyond.
There was a long metal pole stuck deep into the snow with a dirty black cloth tied to it at the very top. The cloth had been torn to rags by the wind, but strands of it still hung on. Simon’s handiwork, Walter guessed, or the Soilmen who’d been there with him.
“Dad! Look!” the boy spoke, and for moment a child-like wonder had returned to his voice. He was pointing up.
Walter followed the boy’s finger, but all he saw were grim grey clouds shifting angrily through the sky.
“I don’t . . .” he began, but the words stopped. He had to move his eyes away. Something very bright shone briefly between the clouds leaving a blind white spot in his eyes.
“See that?” the boy spoke. There was a nervous joy in his voice.
“It’s just like the book said. The sky has broken, and there’s fire beyond it!” The boy pranced around unable to contain his excitement.
Walter was breathing heavily again, his heart thumping madly in his chest. He’d seen a sign! Had Simon been right? He looked up again and then waited as the sun glimmered once again. He laughed nervously, and the boy screamed with joy. They hugged and jumped in the snow, never taking their eyes off the sky for a moment. They were happy and afraid and relieved all at once. Tears began to flow down Walter’s face as he held the boy close and sank to his knees in the snow. The boy had stopped shouting and laughing and simply hugged him back as Walter cried. He bawled into his son’s shoulder until his lungs would let him cry no more.
They began digging into the snow soon after. The boy moved with a furious pace. Still, it took them a long time to dig. Hours passed and the boy continued, but Walter slowed down. He rested a few times, but his lungs felt no better.
Still they dug deeper until Walter could stand completely sunk into the snow and there was still no soil below them. But Simon had been right about the signs. He couldn’t have been mistaken about the soil, so they dug some more.
Soon, Walter had to stop. He gasped for air, his mouth opening and closing as if trying to gulp the air beyond his lips, but the breath did not come as it had. He’d seen this before, watched others as they tried to suck the air in with their mouths when their lungs refused to do so. They’d looked like the dead fish caught under their feet, in the ice-plains.
I must look terrible now – let the boy not see me this way, please.
“I did it! Da! I found it, look!” The boy climbed out of the deep well of snow that they had dug. They’d used rope, and the wolf’s hide to bring the snow out of the well. This time the boy brought the wolf’s hide with him, and it was filled with dark – black earth.
Soil – not snow.
Walter smiled. The boy’s expression changed to worry as he saw his father leaning against the mound of snow they’d dug up, smiling absently at him.
He walked up to Walter and stared without saying a word – like he’d stared at the dying wolf. He knows.
“Come hhhuh . . .” The words would not come, so he called with his fingers.
The boy sat close to him and spoke, “You’re dying aren’t you?” he spoke with accusing eyes.
This time Walter would not lie, but he could not bring himself to say it, so he nodded. His eyes rolled lazily into his head. My breath is going. I’ll sleep soon.
He shook himself and stared back up into the sky above him, willing his eyes to stay open.
“You can’t die yet . . .” The boy sat down heavily by him. “We haven’t put the seed into the soil yet!”
Walter nodded and gestured toward the bag. When the boy handed the cylinder to him, he pushed a tiny button at the very bottom and with a hiss the glass twisted. The lights underneath went dark. The seed clinked inside the cylinder. The boy held his hand out. As Walter turned the container, the seed rolled out into his palm.
The boy looked up with tearful eyes as Walter pointed to the well they had dug.
“In the s-soil.” He said. The boy silently climbed into the well of snow. Carefully, he placed the seed into the shallow scoop he had dug out and then packed the soil loosely around it. He wondered – if it would survive if the roots would truly take. He worried that he would have to look after it and then suffer the heartbreak of watching it die.
When he climbed out, he looked distraught. He stood unmoving and watching the rise and fall of Walter’s chest.
Walter reached up and held the boy’s hand, gently pulling him closer. He remembered how he’d held the orphaned infant’s palm at The Sanctum. He’d wondered then, how a thing so small could survive a place so cold.
“I . . . love you, William.” He could only manage a whisper. The boy looked at him frowning, beginning to cry.
I’m sorry I never said it before. I always thought this world was much too cold for such words.
The boy hugged him softly and mumbled with a wobbling voice. “Don’t die . . .”
The boy’s eyes wandered to Walter’s bag and hurriedly he got up, reached into it and pulled out the Book of Cold. Then he reached into his bag and brought out the graphite rod with which he would write the words from his father’s book into his own.
But Walter held his hand, “N-no. No book.”
The boy frowned, “But you’re dying. You said . . .”
Walter gripped his son’s hand – feeling his son’s fingers in his own – feeling the weight of his son’s palm.
“N-Now you watch the world bloom.”
He held the boy close and heard his son’s breaths as he stared into the sky – hoping to watch the sun glimmer at him one last time.
Serial fibber – storyteller – writer and occasionally a doodler. Ram’s short stories have appeared in Spark Magazine, Yesteryear fiction and Indian SF. He also writes an award nominated graphic novel series in India.