Saturday, November 22, 2008

Kingdoms in the Snow

It snowed for most of the day, surrounding the Train in silent curtains of white flakes. A layer of white built up outside the compartment window. I could see the tiny crystals in it against the dark wood of the frame. The engine dripped, hot and iron-black in the middle of all the white, and snowflakes vanished on it in tiny puffs of steam.

We stopped at a few small villages - Tremel, Arn, Tackahoe, and two or three more whose names I've forgotten. Everyone in them was tucked away in their houses, sleeping or sitting quietly, looking out at the snow. It's the first snow of the year. By January, no one will even notice it anymore; the flakes on the ground and in the air will become as unremarkable as leaves in Summer. Today, though, the world stops to watch them. Everything is quiet. The sleeping passenger in our compartment wasn't the only one. Only one passenger got off the Train all day, wrapped in so many scarves that nothing was visible but a pair of gleaming yellow eyes. The bundled figure was walking away down the streets of Tremel, a lone silhouette in the empty whiteness, when the Train pulled out of the station. The smell of frost came in through the open door and lingered for half an hour.

A few miles past Tackahoe, there were snowflies in the snow. They looked a bit like tiny white moths. I couldn't see their faces or their tiny hands; I'd need a microscope even if they ever stayed still. They were barely visible even when they flew right up to the Train's windows, braving the raging heat that leaked through the panes of glass. I doubt they got anywhere near the engine. The salamanders on the roof, letting out curious little puffs of steam, must have seemed like enormous fire-breathing dragons.

No one is sure where snowflies come from. They are never seen before the first snowfall. Some people believe they are born then, that one water drop in a million freezes into a snowfly instead of a snowflake and takes on a tiny life of its own.

Snowflies live fast. A day lasts about a year for them. They live through nights that are whole Winters, when ice blooms and the world flourishes, and bleak daytime Summers when the sun drains the cold from the world. An exceptionally long-lived snowfly might see the passing of an entire week. They collect snowflakes, digging them out of the layers on the ground or catching in them midair. Some of them look for quite a while. No one knows why, but only certain snowflakes will do. They build castles with them. This is probably the first tribe of snowflies to appear this year; they will begin a new era, here at the dawn of time, and be remembered in myth and legend by their descendants.

Their castles are marvels of miniature architecture. Snowflies lock snowflakes together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, building them into walls and minarets and tall spires like icicles made of lace. The very thickest walls are thinner than my little finger, and they can withstand the strongest Winter gale. For their size, the snowflies' ice buildings are stronger than stone. The rooms are smaller than the ones in a doll's house.

The castles are more or less the same every year. Either the snowflies build them by instinct, or the basics of snowflake masonry are rediscovered each Winter.

By February, each castle will have become a palace, a monumental construction of a trillion tiny crystals. The snowflies will build an empire. Settlements will grow around the palace, little clusters of ice huts sprouting like mushrooms. A few snowflake empires have grown to cover whole hillsides. The farmers will harvest the frost every morning. Hunts will fly out after gargantuan field mice and the occasional terrifying shrew, waging ferocious battles in the tunnels beneath an inch of snow.

It's almost impossible to observe snowflies, as they're not much larger than snowflakes and move so fast they're practically invisible. Nearly everything we know about them is thanks to Brindle Soffmoggin, a scientist who once spent three weeks in the snow with a camera and a magnifying glass, studying the snowflies. They were curious about him at first (a mute, molten giant, lying motionless on the ground for years at a time), but started treating him like part of the landscape after a few hours. They harvested frost off of the mountain of his coat. Most people these days know Soffmoggin by his nickname, Snowfly Brindley.

In Spring, the world of the snowflies will come to an end. The days will grow longer and harsher. The castles will drip and collapse. The frost will become scarce and die out, the snow will stop falling, and empires that have stood for months will crumble and fall into anarchy. Every snowfly in the Railway Regions will be gone before May.

Next November, when the first snow falls, a new tribe of snowflies will appear and start history all over again.

The world, it is generally agreed, has been around a long time. It will probably be around for quite a while longer. Looking at the snowflies every year, though, I can't help but wonder how many there have been before it.

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Blogger Eggnog said...

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