It was dark and cold. Odd how one doesn’t expect New Year’s Eve to be a cold night, yet it always is, without fail.
The girl shivered, walking briskly along the narrow path. She could hear the sound of celebration all around her, behind every door she passed, through every lit up window. She couldn’t say she envied them. She’d participated in the festivities before and she hadn’t been impressed. As far as she could tell, a New Year’s Eve party had nothing to offer but the promise of extraordinary amounts of alcohol and a brand new headache waiting for you in the morning.
She sighed and stopped to rest, her back against a cold stone wall. The street she’s stopped on was deserted, much to her surprise, but she could still hear the merriment going on in the city center. She’d heard the countdown, she’d caught glimpses of the fireworks, and that was about it for the night. “Let the drinking games ensue”, she thought. With another shiver she crouched down on the ground and closed her eyes. She could feel the snow soaking through her old boots, but she didn’t particularly care at that moment. It had been cold all winter, though she suspected this was the worst night yet. It was the kind of cold that sunk right down to your bones, that drained every ounce of energy out of you, that had one wrinkling his toes for fear of losing them. She could’ve taken shelter if she’d wanted to. There were plenty of abandoned houses in the city, maybe even one or two that were actually empty. But she didn’t want that. She’d grown sick of sneaking into battered down flats and old warehouses. On the streets she could at least see the Christmas lights, hear people cheer, listen to the carols.
“Happy New Year.”
The girl looked up, surprised.
“Happy New Year” she replied.
The young man eyed her curiously.
“Aren’t you cold?”
The man shrugged.
“Not really. Are you waiting for someone?”
The girl rolled her eyes.
“Why? Are you? Is that why you’re out in the street bothering me?”
“Do you ever give straight answers to a question?”
“Just go back to whatever party you’ve stumbled out of.”
The girl snorted and, thinking that the conversation was over, rested her head on her knees and closed her eyes again.
“If you stay here you’ll freeze.”
“Thanks for the information” she grunted.
For the next few minutes, no one spoke. The girl figured he must have left.
“Come with me” the man said suddenly.
“I hardly think so.”
“You could be a serial killer, among other things.”
“Well you don’t seem to care whether you live or die, so I really don’t see the issue here.”
The girl finally looked up at him. The man didn’t seem dangerous, not that that was an indication of anything. He was tall, rather handsome if you got a look at him, his hair darker than anything she’d ever seen and his eyes a deep regal blue, as cold as the winter breeze, yet not without a hint of warmth, a tiny spark of gold, glinting timidly at the back of his eyes.
“Why?” she asked cautiously. “What do you want from me?”
The man smiled kindly.
“Nothing. But my conscience won’t let me leave you here without at least giving you a hot drink.”
The girl frowned. She was about to refuse, when a cold chill suddenly shot down her spine. She sprang to her feet, shook the snow off her coat and, trying to stop her teeth from chattering, smiled warily.
“I could go for some wine.”
Mulled wine. No one would ever drink it in any other part of the year, yet come Christmas and suddenly it’s all anyone can think about. The girl was no exception. Other than the fact that it was warm and sweet and perfect for a cold winter’s night, it was also cheap, which was a definite pro.
She followed the man down the path and round a dark corner, where the only light came from a lone shop up the alleyway.
With a shaky hand, the girl found the zipper to one of her coat pockets and slowly tried to pull it open, something she found surprisingly hard to do. She could hardly feel her fingers anymore, and yet every time her hand grazed against the zipper, it felt like a hundred tiny knives scratching her skin. Still she rummaged through her coat pockets, until finally she found what she was looking for, a one pound coin.
“Keep it” he said, handing her a steaming cup of mulled wine.
“It’s only fair” she said hesitantly. Truthfully she would’ve preferred to keep the coin, but she felt guilty, taking something for free.
“Keep it” he repeated.
The girl reluctantly put the coin back in her pocket and took the cup. She almost yelped in pain as the overwhelming heat came in contact with her freezing hands, but still she held on to the cup, breathing in the sweet smell of wine.
“So what was your plan then?”
The man turned towards her, giving her a scrutinizing look.
“Was that where you were going to spend your night?”
The girl sipped on her wine.
“Well that’s my business, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you have family you can stay with?”
“Look, I’m fine, okay? Thank you very much for the wine, but now I think I’ll be on my way.”
As she turned to leave, the man spoke again.
“What’s your name?”
“I asked first.”
“Well that’s that then.”
Again she tried to leave, but the man stopped her in her tracks.
“Don’t you have anywhere you can go?”
The girl took another sip.
“You don’t have to waste your time with me” she murmured softly. “It’s not my first winter on the streets. Thanks again.”
With that, she began to slowly make her way back onto the narrow street. After one or two minutes of trudging through the snow she settled down again with her back to the wall.
With a sigh she pressed her hands tightly around the cardboard cup, trying to make the most of the heat radiating through her palms before it was gone. As she stood there, her eyes rested on a patch of red on the ground. A scarf. “His scarf!” she remembered. Leaving the wine on the ground, she bent down and picked it up. So soft and warm against her hands, for a moment it crossed her mind to keep it. A few moments later though, she found herself plodding back down the path. As she turned the corner, she called out.
“Excuse me, I believe you forgot your —“
She stopped in awe.
The girl stared at what once had been a dark narrow alley. Now, a dark forest stretched out before her, as far as the eye could see. Dark, yet not entirely unwelcoming. As she took a step forward, the air was filled with the scent of evergreens, she heard the soft crunch of fresh snow beneath her feet and, all around her, what seemed like thousands of tiny specks of light began blinking amongst the trees, inviting her in.
The lights themselves were as bright as the ones she’d seen on Christmas trees, yet seldom had she seen such lights move of their own accord, hopping from branch to branch. For as she walked, the lights followed, keeping the darkness at bay. The snow glinted in the moonlight, making the trees seem almost made of silver, frozen into place. The girl gazed, her eyes full of wonder, at a patch of holly trees, growing nearby. Such a splendid contrast, bright red against the snow. She hardly noticed the cold anymore.
“I must be dreaming. But I don’t want to be dreaming. Yet I must be dreaming.” the girl thought to herself.
As though to prove her wrong, a handful of lights glided towards her, resting on her hands and shoulders, darting from tree to tree, drawing circles around her and just generally having a pretty good time. The girl momentarily wondered whether it was fireflies that she was seeing, but she soon rooted out the possibility.
“Okay, that’s enough.”
The girl looked up sharply. Up ahead, lying against a tree, stood the young man. The girl frowned, staring up and down at him. With all the lights and the wood and snow, how was it that it was still him that looked otherworldly, that somehow made the magic around him seem mundane in comparison?
He regarded her curiously, as though he wasn’t quite sure whether he was happy to see her or not. His eyes glittered strangely, reminding the girl of an image of the moon reflected in a lake; distorted, yet still beautiful. She could hardly make out the rest of his face, for though the wood was full of light, shadows fell over his features, as though he was anxious not to reveal himself.
“I — “the girl stammered, “You forgot your scarf.”
The man smiled, though it was not a happy smile, she observed.
“You should’ve kept it.”
“What are you?”
Though it was a most unreasonable question, the girl could not decide on a better one.
The man did not answer.
“Do you like my world?” he asked instead.
“Anyone would, I think.”
“I suppose so.”
“Why show it to me, though?”
The young man pursed his lips, not sure how to respond.
“It’s New Year’s” he said finally.
“That’s not a reason” she snorted. “Christmas, sure, no questions there, but —“
“Do you want to walk around?”
The girl had more questions, but all of them seemed to pop out of her head. She nodded, gleefully.
They strolled together through the snow, an array of lights dancing around them.
“Are they alive?” the girl asked as one of them rested lightly on her finger.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What does that mean?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Huh, and you say I don’t give straight answers.”
The man laughed.
“I’m afraid we have that in common.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“Am I dead?”
The man looked at her uncomfortably.
“What’s with that look?”
“It’s a stupid question to ask.”
“Not necessarily. You only appeared after I sat down in the snow. Maybe I’m still —“
“You’re not dead.” the man spoke sharply.
The girl furrowed her brow.
“Explain this then. Where am I?”
“Must you question everything? Why can’t you just enjoy the magic for what it is?”
As he spoke, there came the sound of trickling water nearby. The girl rushed towards the sound and sure enough, she found it. A river, flowing in-between the trees, completely frozen yet she could still hear the water beneath. Without a word she walked alongside it for a few minutes, until she reached an opening in the trees, a beautiful valley, overshadowed by a cliff, a waterfall perfectly frozen in mid action, a flawless sculpture bearing down onto the dell.
“You’re right” she murmured. “Perhaps some things should be left alone, in obscurity.”
The girl sat down on a rock, staring in wonder at the scenery.
“Would you like to stay here?”
“Stay here?” the girl asked dreamily. “Here where?”
“I thought you said some things should be left unknown.”
“I said perhaps” the girl answered, her eyes still transfixed. “If it’s a matter of staying, I’d like to know what I’m getting myself into. For instance, are we still in England?”
“Then are we still in Ripon?”
“Was there something in my wine?”
The man scowled.
“No. What you see is as real as you or me.”
“Then where are we?”
The man paused.
“Imagine it as a pocket of reality, separate, invisible at times, yet easy to access if one knows where to look.”
“That creates more questions than it answers.”
“Why not you?”
“Why would I want to stay?”
The young man smiled.
“Are you cold?”
“No. Answer the question.”
“Tired? Hungry? Thirsty?”
“No. Why are you asking me this?”
“And you never would be. Not here.”
The girl turned to him, bewildered. It was true, ever since she’d stepped into the forest, she’d no longer felt the aching sensation of her empty stomach, no longer felt her eyelids droop over her eyes, no longer felt the wind send shivers down her spine. In fact, the air in the wood was so deafeningly still, it was almost unnerving.
“You think this is beautiful?” the man asked, gesturing towards the waterfall. “It’s not even comparable to the rest of this place. You can’t even imagine what —”
“But it’s not real” the girl whispered.
The man frowned.
“Of course it is.”
The girl shook her head.
“It’s beautiful. It’s like a picture from a fairy-tale book come to life. But it’s not real.”
The man tried to say something, but the girl continued.
“Where’s the wind? Where are the stars? And there’s no sound, apart from us and the river. No sound, yet there should be, shouldn’t there? A thud as snow falls off the branches. Wood cracking. A wolf howling. An animal, anything. There’s no life here. Apart from the lights, and I’m not so sure they are alive. And why do I smell evergreens and… pudding and… roasted potatoes? If magic does exist, it should be real, not a fancy. This is nothing but an up to scale model of a forest, not even an illusion, but less.”
The girl stopped to look at the lights one more time.
“Though it is a pretty fancy, I’ll admit.”
With a smile, she reached out with her finger to touch one the lights. Before she could reach it however, it was gone. It was all gone, apart from the young man, now leaning against a lamppost, arms crossed and his eyes still glittering, still regarding her peculiarly.
“Not many would’ve turned me down” he said.
“You didn’t really give me the chance to.”
“But you would have.”
His eyes narrowed.
“It would have been better if you’d stayed. Still, if I can’t change your mind…” he walked towards her and, with a small sigh, took her hand in his.
The girl flinched slightly, but didn’t take her hand away.
“Why are they so cold?” he muttered, more to himself, than to her.
Before she could answer, the man grasped at something in the air. A snowflake, the girl thought, but when he opened his palm, there was something else inside. A corkscrew bottle, no bigger than his thumb, filled almost to the brim with snow and one small holly branch, with a couple of berries still visible.
It was warm against her palm.
“What is it?” she asked, examining it.
The man smiled.
“I can’t make the hunger go away. Nor can I stop the wind from blowing. But if you’re ever tired or sad, if you ever feel like giving up again, hold it tightly.”
The girl looked into his eyes.
“You’re strange. Has anyone ever told you that?”
The girl thought she heard him say something else, but then she wasn’t quite sure. It was morning. The wind was howling more than ever. She wondered how she ever made it through the night. She blinked a few times in the winter sun. There was something hot, almost burning in her hand. A bottle, with a holly branch in it, covered with snow. She squeezed it tightly, letting the warmth circulate through her fingers. Her heart leapt for some reason. She got up, shaking the snow off her coat and hair, then slowly, bottle still in hand, made her way to the town square.