He walked, alone. The city opened to him.
An old man, his hair was white and unkempt, his beard wild. His coat was heavy and lined with fur, but patched in places, frayed. It furled and flapped against the breeze that wound through the cobbled canyons of the city. He walked.
The streets seemed familiar to him, the faint taste of something recognized beneath the wash of change. Had he walked them before?
In the city, lights burned brightly. Cars traipsed past him, their narrow beams of light illuminating the faces of buildings he almost remembered. Street lamps burned sedately overhead, trapped in iron prisons with spotless glass windows. Touches of golden wheat were fading in the sky, replaced with the first lavender that would become the navy-dark night. Clouds threatened in the distance. The city burned, to keep the cold nights at bay.
He couldn’t remember who he was. He caught snatches of it, dancing in the depths of his foggy memories, but the cold fact remained out of reach. His lack of self did not trouble him. It seemed he had been walking for some time without one. He walked because he knew he needed to. The truth would come, as it always did. The years turned, the seasons rolled, and his self would come back to him.
He passed people on the street, and they gave him odd looks. His wool shirt was dark and sagged wearily. His trousers were heavy canvas, his boots unlaced. He looked out of place, lost. They didn’t ask him if he needed help or wish him good evening. They chattered and laughed, each shining vibrant–but their eyes kept flitting to him, tracking him. When he drew level with them on the street, their faces grew a shadow, pinched and uneasy, like he would stop and speak to them, burden their existence with his own. He did not belong in their laugh-a-day world. They eyed the case in his hand, and quickly brushed past.
He needed to do something, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He would remember in time. The street beneath him rolled and turned, and he followed it onward.
The signs of autumn surrounded him as he walked. The trees, planted in single file along the sidewalks or clustered together in the park, blazed brilliant in shades of red and gold. The scent of cinnamon and spices floated on the wind from the windows that lined the street. Above all was the feeling that autumn held–crisp, clear. He knew that feeling very well.
There were other tramps on the street, other roamers and strays, but they were not like him. They eyed him from beneath their hasty shelters of cardboard with narrow eyes of suspicion, owners of a veiled truth. He ignored their muttered grumbles and drunken slurring. Their anger at him. He shouldered it, as he had before. It didn’t matter to him. They had hated him, did hate him. Would hate him.
And what could he do about it? He was not the one who pushed them away, sent them squatting in their own filth and humiliation, made them feel like lesser than. He was not the one who would find them hunched beneath a thin blanket in the coming months, cold as the snow that outlined their still forms.
A man was playing music in one of the squares the old man walked past, centered in a small group of smiling faces. He knew the song the man played, caught snatches of it before it floated away. Had he heard it before? Like the streets it seemed familiar but different, a melody changed slightly but still bearing an undercurrent that beckoned to him. The people clustered around him smiled and nudged each other, some singing along. He had seen this before–the joy on the people’s faces, the content smile on the face of the musician as he held them all together with the song. He had seen it every year.
A sad smile crept along the face of the old man, and for a single second, he remembered. From deep within, the spark of memory. He had his own song to play. No one smiled at his song, no one stood before him as he played it with a smile. He played it alone, for the song’s own sake. As soon as he had the thought, it vanished, tucked back into the haze that covered him. He forgot he had the thought at all.
His hand tightened on the case, and he walked on.
The street widened into a square, bustling as a hive. A market stood beneath the gaily painted house faces, selling toys and trinkets from stalls. Children shrieked with the joy of play, adults stood by sipping warm drinks. There was a sense of peace, community. The night was cool and still, forgiving. Lights on a string crossed the square in bright garlands, strung high, decorated with glass and baubles.
For a second, the old man paused. Could he join them? He wanted to. It seemed an easy enough idea; set down the case, walk forward. Perhaps enjoy a cup of…coffee, that was it. He knew what coffee was, of course. How could he forget? He forgot so many things. He could walk into the warmth generated by those smiling and laughing people, smile back and talk to them, be accepted by them–
No. No of course he couldn’t. This wasn’t his place. This would never be his place. His place was the road, his place was far from here.
His place was the whistling pines.
He looked down at the case he held and walked on.
The streets grew leaner, tighter, the buildings shorter and further apart. He saw houses, each a glittering parcel, a snapshot of happiness. Each a warm memory that belonged to someone else. Families decorated trees together, gathered around meals together, played outside together. He passed them invisible, another tramp on his own, living a silent life. None of these places was for him.
Who was he? He couldn’t summon a single memory from the fog that surrounded him. No parents. No friends. Not even a home. He thought hard, trying to focus, but his mind was old, and feeble now. All that remained was the road, and the song.
He walked alone. The city fell away behind him.
Beyond the city lay the wilds. The road weaved first through cultivated fields, shallow and barren in the lateness of the year, before turning around the first of the hills that swiftly leapt up into the sky to become mountains. They were the dark teeth of the horizon, painted orange and gold from the failing sun. Crows gathered on fences and cawed at him, cocking their heads. He ignored their chatter. They knew him.
He wished he knew himself.
The road climbed the back of a rounded hill. On the other side, a forest of soft pine. Thick roots encroached broke through the soft loam, steeped in pooled shadow. Overhead, the boughs sighed in a gust of wind, needles soughing against each other. It smelled of dirt, of pine sap. It was a clean smell, raw and unfiltered.
The hills rose all around him. Birds called to each other in muted warbles. Squirrels pelted after each other underfoot.
The old man paused. He knew the forest, knew the hills. He had walked this stretch before.
It was the bear that woke him. It shouldered through the pines, large enough to brush the boughs aside, covered in coarse brown fur that did nothing to veil the promise of deadly power. It walked slow, cumbersome. Weary. Blood from a fresh kill dripped from it’s maw. The great beast sniffed and turned to look at him; there was a question in those tired eyes.
Don’t you have somewhere to be?
Intent flared to life in his fogged-over memories, and he remembered. The song. He needed to play his song, for the song’s own sake.
The old man walked on, and soon turned off the road. He had been walking it for a long while. The forest swallowed his footsteps, leaving no trace in the dirt and carpet of mouldering leaves.
He walked like the wind.
Soon the ground grew steep, and rocky. The pine trees faltered and fell away. He walked slowly, borne of purpose. The case became heavy in his hand but he did not set it down. He did not stop.
The air grew thin, cool. He chased the last rays of daylight up the shoulder of the mountain.
His intent brightened, and the haze diminished. With each step, it seemed, he remembered who he was. Remembered his purpose.
He had a song to play. He had played this song for a long time, just as he had been walking for a long time. But what did time matter to him?
Finally, he stopped. He was standing on a flat spur of rock that jutted from the mountain, looking down on the valley far below. In the distance, the lights of the city glitter, warm motes where the land ended. The world hesitated at his feet, held on the brink of change. Waiting for him. How many times had he walked here alone? How many times had he played his song?
He set the case down gently, slipped open the leather restraints.
He knew who he was.
A man stands on a mountain. He looks as wild as the country that falls away below the precipice; a coarse beard to match his snow-white hair, heavy coat and boots. He looks like he has sprouted from the rock he stands on, stolid.
In his hands, he holds a violin. The instrument is old, old as the man himself, but cared for, polished until the wood glowed.
The day behind the man is dying. Red resin paints the clouds that billow in the sky, casting hard shadows on the man’s face.
He puts the violin on one shoulder and closes his eyes. He holds the bow above the strings and feels the wind against his face. He knows that it is time. Time to play his song, once more. He touches the bow to the strings, and the first notes float out into the gloam. He plays and loses himself to the melody that surrounds him.
The breeze that caresses the mountain builds into a wind, then a gale, whistling as it slips through the faces of rock. It comes from the north.
It smells of frost.
Loose leaves skitter and skate across the forest floor below him, whipped from their resting place to float high in the sky on the new breeze. They fly like soldiers, heralds of what is coming. What has always come.
Deep in the hills, by a small spring, long grass ruffles briefly in the north wind, then stills as the first touches of crystalline hoarfrost coat it. Ice encroaches on the still water, clouding the reflection of the sunset.
The clouds split open, and rain falls on the mountain. It moves over the pine trees in waves, and the sounds of autumn are lost beneath its ceaseless rattle.
The old man notices all of this, and none of this. He plays his song and watches the world change beneath his feet.
Wind howls down the mountain, into the forest. Deer and rabbit, wolf and fox flee from its icy touch, burrowing beneath hill and dale, taking shelter from the cold The last rays of daylight fade from the sky, and the long night reigns.
In the hush of rising silence, the rain turns to snow, and blows towards the city.
Old Man Winter stands on the mountain and plays the world his song.
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