She was four the first time she built him. Her dad helped her place big, round buttons in a neat column down his front. They gave him dead branches for arms and tucked two flat, black rocks from the river beneath him for feet. Dad took a red apple from his coat and sliced it in two with a pocketknife. He helped the girl set one half into the snowman's chest, just left of the buttons. Then he lifted her up so she could twist two ends of a cucumber onto the snowman's face - green eyes, just like hers - and a smile of raisins.
"Wait," she said in her tiny voice before Dad could set her down. She loosened her scarf, yanking the ends of it from inside her coat and wound it around the snowman's neck, tying a fumbly child's knot at his throat. As her feet touched the ground again, she smiled up at her work. The scarf was bright pink and flowery, but the snowman didn't mind. He was just happy to be there.
The following winter, she stretched an old ski cap over his head and gave him some gloves to keep his fingers warm as he stood guard in front of her house. And there was a new scarf, deep blue and gray. When she was sure her father and brothers weren't looking, she stood on her tip-toes and whispered into the snowman's seashell ear, "I picked it out. I hope you like blue."
Even though it was against the rules - snowmen aren't allowed to show life to anyone but their own kind - he winked at the girl. Just once. Just to tell her that he did indeed like blue, although he hadn't known it until that moment. She stood there blinking at him. But then slowly, and with great effort, she winked back, so the snowman knew that she believed, and understood, and that their secret was safe.
As she walked to the bus stop each morning holding her oldest brother's hand, she turned and winked at her snowman. Or waved. Or smiled. Sometimes she did all three. The snowman wanted more than anything to wave back, but it was too risky. So he waited until they'd turned the corner before he allowed the icy crystals in his cheeks to shift and stretch into a smile.
One winter, she replaced the ski cap with a wool tam. By now she was ten, and tall enough to arrange the snowman's features by herself. The snowman opened his eyes - still green, like hers - to find her regarding him while her brothers and father built a snow fort. Her mouth twisted into a puckered knot on one side of her face. The snowman thought he knew a word to go with her expression: uncertainty. Believing was becoming harder with time.
Quickly, the snowman grasped the edge of his new wool tam, bending new joints in his arm even as they were created, and tipped his hat once to her. The dead branch that was his arm snapped back into place before anyone else noticed. But she saw, and smiled. And all was well again.
One day, the snowman woke up for the first time and noticed that the girl had changed. Her face had gotten thinner and her eyes had lost some of their childhood roundness. More than one winter had passed since he'd last seen her. Her hands shook as she struggled to tie his blue and gray scarf just so. The snowman couldn't see the girl's father anywhere in the yard.
The snowman's initial joy at being alive again was quickly replaced by something else, something new. He was sad to see his girl this way. She wouldn't even look at him as she placed the heart on his chest like always. He wished she would talk to him, tell him her secrets like she had so many times before. But he knew what caused the tears to slide down her winter-kissed cheeks, even without her saying the words. She had never built him all by herself before.
That night, the snowman shook the new snow from his shoulders. For the first time in all his winters, he wriggled his river-rock feet free of the crusted ice and dead grass. He made his way around the house until he found her window. The room was dark inside, but he could hear her crying. He stepped up to the glass, filled his frozen lungs with air, and blew.
Thin crystals of ice bloomed where his breath touched the glass, rippling and spreading until they covered the whole window. He knew he should return to his post in the yard. He'd already broken so many rules. The consequences for revealing himself like this would be grave indeed. But he couldn't bring himself to leave his girl alone yet. So he waited and watched, and hoped it would be enough.
This must be what it's like, he thought, to feel your own heart beat.
There was something different about the morning when the girl woke up. The light had a crisp, peculiar quality. She sat blinking for a few groggy moments, then looked at her window and gasped at the frosty patterns lit by the sun: a blanket of icy lace, blooms and swirls, a whole garden of snowflakes, and everywhere hearts, big one, little ones, all wreathed in ice. Almost as soon as she'd seen it, it was gone. Warmed by the sun's heat, the crystals turned back on themselves and retreated into nothing.
But the girl had seen, and she remembered her snowman. For the first time in a long while, she felt happy, and she did not see the pile of seemingly disconnected items lying outside her window in the snow: a couple of rocks, dead tree branches, a hat, an old scarf, pieces of a wilted cucumber, and in the center of it all, one half of a bright red apple.
|Illustration by Janiel Miller|