I’ve come back to New York City, most recently from a place called Owego —also in New York. And like many small towns in western new york, it is very, very, cold.
Besides being very cold, it is also overcast, and generally, dark.
I was there, with my boyfriend, and it was my 30th birthday. And what is better to do on the first eve of your youth than to take a walk with your beloved, through the gravestones.
So we march up the side of the mountain by that small town to the cemetery. The cemetery there is old, housing graves from the civil war. They’re washed away by time, white and smooth as bones. Its so cold I can barely imagine human warmth, or any warmth, at all.
Surrounded by creaking trees and tombstones, my fingers like icicles, I think about warm fires in cabins, touching my love’s hands and actually feeling them.
I started thinking about stories my grandmother used to tell me about winter.
Deep in the forests of Northern Russia, an old couple, Ivan and Masha lived in a hut. Winter had set in and thick white snow covered the ground.
The old couple were both kind and hardworking but they were also sad and lonely, for they were childless and there was no-one to care for them or to help them through the cold winter.
Their days passed slowly, work was their only comfort.
Then one day, while clearing an area so they could chop some more wood, they began to heap together piles of snow. Remembering the games they used to play in their childhood, the old couple began to shape the snow into human form. By the time they had finished they were nearly frozen but the image of the young girl they had created was so beautiful, it was beyond description.
“Beloved,” said the old man, “this is our daughter Snegurochka.” The old woman smiled but as her husband turned away, there were tears in her eyes.
In the forest twigs crackled and snapped and the cold wind shuddered the trees. Deep in the glade stood Father Frost, watching the old couple.
Father Frost felt the power of their love and, decided to send them a daughter in his own spirit. He scratched his long white beard and pondered for a while before raising the great staff he carries into the air. A frizzle of magic ripped through the forest and Father Frost sent a piece of his spirit into the snow maiden.
The old couple were at home stoking the fire up when they heard three knocks at their door. “What strange guest is knocking on our door?” They opened it and there stood the most beautiful pale girl with skin as hard, and as cold as ice.
She was dressed in a long, light blue robe, its collar and cuffs trimmed with soft fur; her robe was covered in shimmering snowflakes. On her head was a hat of fur and snowflakes that looked a little like a crown and which sparkled like an icy flame. Her shoulders were covered with a cape of dark blue and on her feet she wore embroidered boots.
The old couple stared in wonder and disbelief, for there in front of them was their longed for child. Snegurochka came towards them and their hearts leapt with joy as the young maid said, “If it pleases you, I have come to be your daughter and will care for you as my mother and father.”
The old woman took the snow maiden’s pale hand and with great joy led her into the hut. As she followed the couple Snegurochka felt the trees and the beasts of the winter forest bid her a happy life.
Snegurochka helped with the chores and cared well for the couple. They could not believe their luck at having such a kind and beautiful child.
Despite her miraculous nature her parents worried about her, she was so quiet and pale; sometimes she seemed so frail as to be lifeless. But, there was always fire in her bright blue eyes and her smile would light up the forest on a dark day.
Snegurochka loved the trees and the creatures of the forest and would wander off to play secret games by herself. She was also a dutiful daughter to her new parents, never complaining and always doting on them, tho there was a cold distance in her eyes.
Two happy months passed and it was time for winter celebrations. The town streets, a few miles away, were alive with strollers and entertainers.
Happy groups of people sometimes passed through the forest on their way to town. Snegurochka watched the people through a frozen window pane of the huy. Concerned, the old woman suggested that Snegurochka should join the celebrations, for it must be very dull living all the time with an old couple. Snegurochka assured them she was very happy.
Then one day, as she was looking out of the icy window, she saw a young man and woman, in the glade where they lived. She saw them playing games in the snow, laughing, jumping and singing. She saw the bond that existed between the young couple, a and she was drawn to it like to a fire.
As she would walk in the forest conferring with the icy rivers and old trees, she could not stop thinking of the bond between the two young people.
She could resist no longer. The old woman, helped her put on her dark blue cape, and she went out to join the people walking towards the town.
It was not long before somebody saw the beautiful young lady standing on the edge of the town and Snegurochka was bid welcome. She saw the young couple and went to talk to them, but an unease made them draw away. Despite this, the crowd was captivated by her beauty and innocence.
From then on Snegurochka went out on the town quite often.
One day, as she enjoyed the bustle of the throngs of people, she heard strains of the most charming music. It was the song of a young shepherd. He was named Lel. Snegurochka moved closer to hear more. Lel saw the young maiden watching him play his flute and thought her very beautiful. He fell deeply in love with Snegurochka and they soon became inseparable.
The weeks passed and spring was approaching. Father Frost warned Snegurochka to keep away from the firey rays of the sun god which could kill her. She must always, he said, stay in the shadow.
As spring approached the people left their homes more often.
Whenever the young girls came out to stroll and to sing, Snegurochka would go with them.
Lel would run to Snegurochka’s hut, tap on the window and say, “Beautiful Snegurochka, do come and join us”. And she would always follow the sing song of his flute.
When she appeared in town, he never left her side. They would dance in the shade of the trees, and stroll around under the stars, but Snegurochka knew there was something missing, she knew she did not feel the way the humans did.
The more she thought of Lel, the more pale she became but, despite this, she went to seek out Mother Spring in the forest. She roamed it through and through and finally came upon a Milk Flower pushing through the snow. She asked if she could feel the special bond the humans felt. Mother Spring said she would grant her wish but, if she followed this path, she would surely perish.
Then, one beautiful morning, when the day had at last, become as long as the night, Lel came to Snegurochka’s little window and pleaded with her to come out with him, just once, just for a moment. For a long while Snegurochka refused to listen but, finally, her heart could no longer resist.
She walked with Lel to the edge of the birch forest. Where young people were dancing, jumping over and singing around fires.
“Lel, play your flute for me!” she asked.
She stood before Lel, and let the song warm her heart, she felt her arms and legs tingling. She listened to the song and felt love for the first time. She could feel her entire essence as tho it was floating away.
“Let’s jump over the fire together” Says Lel, and Snegurochka takes his hand.
With laughter and peals of joy they run and leap over the blaze but as Lel lands onto the Damp Earth there was nothing beside him but an icy mist, drifting upward into the blue sky.
As the snow maiden fades away, Spring spreads over the land: frost retreats and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone is cheered by the return of Spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.
As for the old couple, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.
But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to the north lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took her old form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.
But, each year in winter, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden come back to work their cold magic.
I looked through the creaking trees of the cemetery, amusing myself at imagining them there breathing the warmth of love into the ice of winter