It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark.
Two ghostly men walked side by side, the powdery flakes passing through their luminous heads and shoulders before settling on the path. Their feet left no prints as they went.
“I like the cold and snow,” one man, whose name was Jack, said to the other, “makes a good setting, but I hate the word ‘terribly.’ We’ve got to change that.”
“Fine, fine Mr. London,” the other man, Hans, said with a thick Danish accent, “then what would you suggest?”
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth- bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.
“My goodness,” Hans exclaimed, “all of that in one opening sentence? And how is the word ‘exceedingly’ any better than ‘terribly?’ I also notice you have decided for us already that we are in the forest and our character is a man. I did not agree to that.”
“Alright,” Jack said, “Fair enough, I guess we should determine where this is going to happen and who we are going to do it too before we really get started.”
“And what do you mean by ‘do it?’”
“We both know that at the end of our cold and snowy story we are gonna have to kill somebody.”
Hans paused in the snow and gave Jack a scandalized look, “I will not kill anyone.”
“Don’t give me that. We both know you killed the little matchstick girl. Sure you might have made it look nice the way she went to be with grandma and God, but you’re the storyteller, so it’s still your fault she died.”
“‘Killed’ seems like an indelicate way of saying it, but your point is taken.” Hans cleared his throat abruptly and continued walking. “As for character, I would, of course, prefer a young girl, but it seems you would prefer a man. Shall we compromise and make it a boy, not too young, but not too old either?”
“Sure. But he’s got to have some proper cold weather gear. I don’t want anything to do with barefoot nonsense. No one is going anywhere in the snow barefooted.”
“I seem to remember your yukon man had issues with freezing feet.”
“Getting your feet soaked is entirely different then running around with nothing on them.”
“Very well then.” Hans cleared his throat again.
On the path in front of them a boy appeared. He looked to be about 12 years old. The snow settled in the curly brown locks on his head. An oversized coat hung heavily on his shoulders, and his feet were wrapped in rags bound with strips of leather.
He stood shivering while both men inspected him, though it was clear the boy could not see or hear them.
“I think he could be a very sympathetic creature,” Hans said, nodding in approval.
Jack bent down and looked into the boy’s eyes. “There’s some foolishness in there too. And see how he tied those leather thongs?” Jack pointed, “Those knots will be hard to undo. We can make something out of that, can’t we?”
“Yes, yes, if you like. Now, where should we put him?”
“You know I’m partial to the wilderness; somewhere we can really get this kid alone and find out what he is made of before we do him in.”
“But wouldn’t it be that much more compelling if he felt alone even though he was surrounded by a city full of people?”
“Another compromise then,” Jack sighed, “How about we put him in a country village?”
Hans nodded in agreement and a village sprung up around the boy. The path became a cobbled street lined by thatched roofs piled with thick snow. Long jagged icicles hung in front of warm glowing windows and wind gusted down the alleyways. The boy shrugged the coat up around his face to protect it from the stinging flakes.
“Now we are getting somewhere,” Jack said, rubbing his hands together.
The boy was a new-comer in the village, just as he had been a new-comer in the last village and in the village before that. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things and not in the significances. The villages were only places for taking what food he could find and what shelter he was allowed before being run off. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head—
“No, no, no,” Hans said as the boy skulked up to a shop window and peered in with pilfering intent, “a boy this unpleasant will deserve anything we do to him. No one will care. We need more sympathy.”
Jack grunted and motioned that Hans should go to work.
No one had spared anything for the boy to eat the whole day, nor had any one given him even a penny. Shivering with cold and hunger, he crept along; poor little child, he looked the picture of misery. In a corner, between two houses, one of which projected beyond the other, he sank down and huddled himself together. He was so cold, he thought for a moment about returning to his father’s house so many villages back. At least there the walls had blocked the wind. But no, even the winter's blast was better than the beatings.
Jack rolled his eyes and trudged over to the corner where the boy sat with his arms wrapped around his knees. “I’m all for a little foolishness, but sitting here like this is just pathetic. What are we supposed to do with him now? Might as well just let his fairy godmother show up and carry him away.”
Hans cleared his throat, “I think we should see what happens if we let him try and warm himself. There’s a bundle of matches in his pocket.”
“Alright, but I’m not going to make it easy.”
“Of course not.” Hans agreed.
The boy knew he wouldn’t last long sitting down, not in cold like this. The old tramp a few towns back had told him that so long as he walked four miles an hour, his blood would pump, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now he felt it ebbing away and sinking down into the recesses of his body. His nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its blood—
“Eh hem,” Hans cleared his throat, “I think we already understand he is cold.”
“But we’ve got to make it clear just how cold. I haven’t even got to how many degrees of frost it is yet.”
“We ought to get to the fire. The striking of matches has a nice sensory impact that I think will help our story here. Everyone enjoys imagining the satisfying ‘schlick’ of the dragging match head and the mesmerizing life-like quality of a dancing little flame, don’t you think?”
“Ok. Have at it if you think you can do it better. But don’t make it easy. None of these ‘one-match-feels-like-a-whole-pot-bellied-stove’ gimmicks.”
He pulled his bare hands from the sleeves of his coat—
“I thought we agreed he would have sensible winter gear.”
“Well, he has his shoes doesn’t he? He lost his mittens when being chased by—”
“Alright, alright, just get to the fire.”
His little hands were almost frozen with the cold. Ah! Perhaps a burning match might be some good, if he could draw it from the bundle and strike it against the wall, just to warm his fingers. He drew one out--scratch!--how it sputtered as it burnt! It gave a warm, bright light, and he held it to the little stack of twigs he made—”
“A little stack of twigs? I thought we were going to make this difficult, and here you go just throwing in an easy stack of twigs. How did he get the twigs? How did he grab them with freezing hands? How did he prepare the bed for his fire in the snow? If this kid is gonna die, we’ve got to make a good strong case for it.”
“Well, how is he going to die?”
“I think it should have something to do with the way he tied his foot gear. It will show his death was his own fault you know? Like, if he had done it the way the old tramp had told him, then he would have been alright.”
Hans cleared his throat, “That’s interesting I suppose.”
“It's just that I don’t think his death should be his fault. It should be tragic, but also peaceful and a little bit magical.”
“No, absolutely not. I draw the line there. We can’t be having magic in a story about someone dying from hypothermia, and it especially can’t be the magic’s fault he died. If anything (and that would be a big if) the only thing resembling magic would be his dog somehow figuring out how to get the fire going.”
“There is no dog in this story.”
“There isn’t? Shoot. We have to start all over.”
Hans cleared his throat. “Very well. But if we do, can we try it with a little girl instead?”
“Fine. But she’ll have to have mittens and boots and a dog that is actually smarter than her.”
“You know, I don’t have a problem with talking animals at all.”
“Knock it off. You don’t have to talk to be smart. Instinct. That's real intelligence.”
The two ghostly men argued as they continued down the path. Around them the village began to disappear. In a dematerializing corner where two houses met, the outline of a little boy with frozen fingers slowly faded—first his heavy coat, then his ragged boots, then his brown curly hair—till there was nothing left but snow as white as empty paper.