The wind is bitter. So bitter that it creeps into your lungs and steals your breath away. Where I come from, they say a wind like that drives you crazy.
Winter and cold weather. The families huddle for warmth around a guttering fire, which puffs and wavers every time the freezing wind howls. In this country, the beasts of the forest are feared and hated, but it is the weather that is the deadliest killer. Food is scarce; few crops can survive the cold. Winter sprouts hang on their stalks in the threadbare garden; they are frozen solid. The glittering frost makes them look like fairy bells. If you listen hard, you could believe you hear them ringing.
In this weather, the devil is in every puff of wind and drift of snow. The people cross themselves and pray for deliverance, pray for survival. Don’t go out when it gets dark; the witches who ride the snowstorms will swoop down and carry you away. Everyone knows that. The mother warns her youngest son about the perils of venturing outside without telling mummy or daddy: remember what happened to your sister last week? Found dead on the path not ten yards from here, so cold, so cold, poor soul; they say it’s like going to sleep.
The child is frightened at the death of his sister. He is only six years of age; but children in this country learn to grow up fast. He pulls his scabby coat of sheepskin round him tighter, watching the brightness of the candle flame in the dank interior of the hut. In his innocence he knew nothing of death before last week; now he is confused and frightened. He looks to his father for guidance: tell me, daddy, what happens to you when you die?
The father gathers his son close to him. How best to explain and not frighten the child? He tells him about heaven. When we die, son, our bodies remain here, but our souls go to a different place. As long as we lead good lives and pray to the Almighty, we will be taken to a better land when we die, as our reward.
What is this place like, daddy?
It is a warm and beautiful country, son. The grey curtain of this world falls away, and the seas turn to silver. The rising sun is molten gold, filling the world with light, and you can see the far-off green hills.
Are there animals there, daddy?
Yes, son. All good things go there after they die. Our faithful old watchdog, do you remember him? He went there last year. When we die, we’ll see him again, and your sister. There are fishes like quicksilver, darting through streams; birds of all colours that sing in the trees.
Is it cold there, daddy?
No, son. The sun is strong and bright, it chases away the clouds and there is no snow. The biting wind cannot touch us there, and there is no hunger or want for anything. It is called heaven, son, and your sister is there, waiting for us. One day, we’ll join her.
The child is silent. His father takes his silence for acquiescence and falls asleep, still cradling his son, lulled by the pattering on the roof. When he wakes, dawn has broken and the boy is gone. The door of the hut is ajar, and a scattering of snow looks like spilled diamonds.
Shivering, the father is about to close the door, but the new snowfall has not quite masked the footprints. In haste the man wrenches open the door and follows the prints round to the back of the hut. There he finds his son.
The boy looks peaceful. The snow is his shroud, as he lies next to the grave of his sister. In his hand is clutched one of the winter blossoms that lay there. The fragile petals are embalmed in frost, stricken but preserved in their beauty. The boy’s skin is pale, and his hair and eyelashes are outlined in frozen dew. In the silence of the morning, more snow gently begins to fall, flake by flake, as the far-off bells begin ringing. It is Christmas day.