Frost

It wasn’t a magic hat, and it certainly wasn’t about laughing and playing—though there is dancing—but if you’ll let me, I promise there’s a story worth telling.

It’s not just about the snowman, either. Or the magician—who, by the way, was a woman, not a man, but that should surprise none who’ve watched how history is shifted as it is passed along.

Mostly? It’s about a man who most considered a boy.

He was a man, though, and that’s important to know. They called him Little Jay, and it was not a compliment to deny him even his first full name. He was scrawny instead of strong, short instead of tall, and took so much after his mother that his father would routinely tell others at the pub that his wife must have made Little Jay all on her own.

Certainly, he was of no use to the man, who was a woodcutter and a carver and who had five other strong sons who learned his craft and worked with him every day. Together, through winter the six Carver men filled the fireplaces of all. They were a cornerstone of the village.

Little Jay was more like a crack in the cobblestone path.

So, Little Jay helped his mother in the house. Their family had no daughters, and so it was Little Jay that learned the skills his mother taught. Little Jay could mend, and sew, and cook, and when it was time to make the straw brooms and baskets, his were as good or better than her own. He had a knack for building patterns from scraps that came from always inheriting them, taking broken things and mending them. After all, when one of his brothers or his father would rip or tear their clothing beyond a simple repair, he was small enough to undo the stitches and fashion a new shirt or trousers from the pieces, carefully avoiding the ruined bits.

And with the torn leftovers, he often found enough to make small colorful patchwork hats, gloves and scarves, or small dolls for the children of their village. He also mended for the villagers, and his repairs were often pretty. His mother called this his magic, but Little Jay knew it wasn’t magic to make a pleasing pattern out of castoffs.

It was practical, perhaps. Useful, even. And certainly a way to pass time in the winter.

But magic? No.

Magic was rare, and wonderful, and often in the hands of those the village didn’t mind inviting around when times were dire or needs were great, but otherwise preferred to leave unseen. Such was the case of the traveling wizardess who came through with the first snows each winter.
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The families of village fed her, housed her, and asked her to bless the fields where the crops would grow. She always smiled, never correcting that magic was not a blessing, but worked the spells in exchange for their hospitality. Even Little Jay’s father and mother would have her over to spend a night. Little Jay would sleep in a nest of blankets by the fire, and after feeding her a nutty bread and thick stew, the wizardess would walk through the woods, touching the small saplings the family planted, tying small silk ribbons to ensure they grew tall and strong, and then sleep in Little Jay’s bed until morning.

With each family, she stayed only a night. And she was ever careful not to cross paths with the parson, who made it no secret she was not welcome.

She saw the way even those who hosted her frowned at a woman who wore silk trousers and seemed to feel nothing of the cold, though she expected they cared more about the trousers than the enchantment she had woven into her silks. She knew full well that when she had done the things they asked of her, it would be wise to go, and quickly.

On the last night, before she left the village, the wizardess would perform for the children, making things appear and disappear, and other minor magics that were as much trickery as they were spells. Little Jay waited for this night every year, and though often his brothers would mock him for attending, many of the other parents liked that Little Jay was present at these shows, watching over the other children who watched.

None wanted to offend the wizardess, after all, but were an adult to join the audience, it would seem too much like approval in the eyes of the parson.

That winter, the wizardess wore a shawl of black silk, and as her final trick, she threw it into the air and while it floated down in front of her, she echoed the meow of a cat. The silk was shredded, mid-air, though none saw anything touch it, and the children applauded as the segments landed on the straw covered floor of the barn.

When the wizardess picked up the pieces again, pushing them into her closed fist and then pulling the scraps back out as one long braided scarf, the applause was all the louder.

This, she explained, was the most important piece of magic there was. Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands and with enough heart, it could always become something else.

And as she wove the scarf around her neck, gathering her things about her and getting ready to leave, it was Little Jay who noticed the small scrap of black silk still left in the straw.

He tried to stop her, holding the piece in his hand, but the wizardess merely winked, and was gone. Wizardesses are often like that: they are present to begin a tale, and far less often see the end of one. Her role was done, and here she left the story.

But that scrap of silk?

Little Jay worked it into a silk cap he’d made of scraps.

Change had come to the village.

His mother praised the pattern Little Jay worked into the scraps. His father criticized the dye on Little Jay’s hands, and the uselessness of a silk cap in winter. His eldest brother joked that only a snowman would wear a hat so useless.

After dinner, when his father took the rest of his brothers to the pub, and after he and his mother had finished the dishes and placed the hot stones in their beds, Little Jay went to his small room filled by the large bed he’d never grow into, pulled the quilts over himself, and found himself awake.

He heard the other men come home, and he heard them take themselves to their beds. He heard their laughter, and their cheerful wishes for good dreams, and he heard their snores that followed.

After, as quietly as a small man who has learned to avoid notice could be—which is very quiet indeed—Little Jay dressed himself, wrapped himself in a scarf he’d made from scraps, shrugged into his patched jacket, carefully slid his feet into boots after layering two thick socks on first, and found his best, warmest gloves.

Little Jay went outside, into the snow.

He loved the snow, and the patterns it made. Drifts were like waves, and the ice on the pond sometimes looked like large snowflakes. He would catch flakes on the end of his scarf, so he could peer at them, holding his breath, and see the tiny star-like patterns—tiny, beautiful things—before they melted away. Tonight, the dark sky was full of snow, and the dim lights from the village below, and the single winter lantern his mother kept lit overnight, were barely enough to chase off the darkness.

But still, Little Jay had no fear of the dark, and much love for the dance of the snow, and so he twirled, arms wide, knowing the scorn he’d invoke for what he was doing were anyone there to see.

When he saw the way his footsteps remained in the snow he knew it was the kind of snow that would build and he set to work. What his brother had said—only a snowman would wear a hat so useless—struck him as a dare, and he took pains to craft a man of snow as large as Little Jay himself was small, as wide as he was narrow, and as strong as he was gentle. He took care, and time, to craft a jacket of snow, with pond stones for buttons. For boots he wrapped pale orange leaves he found under the trees, and he used needles from the evergreen trees as though the man’s white trousers were stitched with green thread. For the face, he took two slivers of coal for the eyes, which he placed under a strong brow and a square jaw nothing like his own face, and then he wove his patchwork scarf around the snowman’s neck.

Now he was done, the smile slipped from his lips.

The large man of snow in front of him was nothing like him. And while that had been the point, now Little Jay couldn’t help but think this was the sixth son his father would rather have had.

He pulled the silk hat from his head.

To have a man like this, a man like his father, and his brothers, who would look at him and respect him and—yes—love him, even though he was small, and narrow, and gentle.

What that might be like.

He wiped a tear on the hat, then fit it on the top of the snowman.

Then, Little Jay went to bed, which was how he missed the snowman’s first breath.

The next morning, a man came to their door. A stranger in the village was a rare thing, and not often welcome, but the tall, broad-shouldered man was eager to work, possessed good humour and an easy smile, and even in the mid-winter, there were opportunities for such a man. For a place by a hearth and a plate at the table, he agreed to chop wood, or clear snow, or haul what needed hauling. That he was handsome, with eyes darker than anyone in Little Jay’s family had ever seen, and that his clothing was so unusual brought some pause—especially to Little Jay’s father—but the man put them all at ease within moments, and soon it was settled that he would breakfast with them, work the day together, and join them for dinner and warmth thereafter.

When Little Jay and his mother brought out the morning food, Little Jay nearly dropped the wooden bowls of warm oats and brown sugar.

The stranger wore a white fur coat with carved stone buttons, and white breeches sewn with green thread. Leather boots a pale orange, and—most importantly—atop his head, a silk cap made of dyed scraps, and a scarf almost to match.

Little Jay looked out the window, but the snowman, and the cap and scarf, were not there.

The man met his gaze, nodded once, and smiled.

His father introduced Little Jay as an aside to his wife, the way one might mention the spoon a cook stirred with, and if his father or brothers noticed how warm and kind the stranger’s greeting to Little Jay was, it went unmentioned.

His mother asked the stranger his name, and with a short pause to once again meet Little Jay’s gaze, the man said his surname was Frost.

They ate, and then they went to work.

Little Jay fretted the day away, and more than once his mother had to bring his attention back to the blankets they were mending, and the baskets they were weaving. Making patterns out of castoffs felt dangerous now, and Little Jay’s fingers trembled.

Could it be true?

He wove another round of the basket’s rim. The women who would later buy the basket would swear it held more than it should.

Could it be true?

He patched a faded blue quilt with small yellow scraps, making a bright star on an otherwise cloudless sky. The child who would later sleep under the mended cloth would always dream of flying.

Could it be true?

They started the evening meal, and Little Jay found himself weaving bread in knots, something he rarely bothered to do unless the meal was a special one. His mother, seeing him work, considered whether or not her son might be apprenticed to the village baker.

But of course, he had two broad-shouldered sons of his own.

She returned to her work, swallowing the familiar fears of what futures might be there for her youngest, smallest son.

When the men returned, Little Jay’s father’s report of the day was something close to a celebration. The stranger had done work almost equal to the rest of them, and their wagons were full of wood for the village days before they could have expected. His father and brothers tore apart the knotted breads, telling stories of how the stranger felled trees with half the blows it would have taken them, and only Frost himself paused to compliment the bread itself.

They laughed into the dark hours, knowing that the next morning they could have the rarest of rewards: a later start. His father offered the stranger Little Jay’s bed, saying Little Jay himself would sleep by the fire in blankets—he was the only one small enough to fit in the nook. And though the stranger protested, Little Jay thought nothing of it, and eased his concern with a smile and a bob of his head.

The others went to sleep, his brothers one by one, then his mother, and finally his father. Little Jay cleared the table with Frost’s help, and they worked side by side in silence. When what work that could be done was done, Little Jay found himself looking at Frost again.

His brow was strong, and his eyes were as dark as flecks of coal. He still wore the silk cap, though he’d shed the white fur coat with the carved stone buttons and beneath that wore a plain cotton tunic. Broad and strong, he seemed so very real, and yet…

Frost reached out, took Little Jay’s hand, and thanked him.

Little Jay listened in silence as Frost explained that anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always become something else. Magic from a piece of a scarf meant to keep a wizardess warm could not be a scarf again, but it could bring warmth of another kind, enough to make what was snow into something that was, though still snow, alive. Something crafted with love might, with that little bit of magic and a single tear, be given the freedom to return the love. He drew Little Jay into an embrace.

There was room enough in Little Jay’s bed, though Little Jay was careful to return to his little nest of blankets and pillows by the fire come morning, and the next day, while he and his mother worked, she noticed the patterns he wove into the baskets were truly things of beauty, and a second blue quilt was mended with whole constellations of snowflakes.

On the market day, the village met Frost, who charmed them all by helping them carry their fire wood to their wagons, and who was the talk of the village by the time the sun hit its peak. Even the parson stopped at their family stall, ostensibly to pick up one of Little Jay’s excellently woven straw brooms, though his mother knew the man had already purchased one only two weeks earlier.

Frost’s laughter, dark eyes, and warm voice put the village at ease, it seemed, and in some small way, it made Little Jay feel welcomed as he’d never felt before. Indeed, Frost had a way of mentioning Little Jay’s talents to those who browsed their stall, and a few times the other villagers looked at Little Jay like they were seeing him for the first time.

But neither the man born of magic and a longing for love, nor a youngest son who made that wish, however, knew how dangerous being noticed might be.

There were few so easily slighted as the eldest Carver son, used to all the attention and praise. And after days of being placed second to a stranger, Little Jay’s eldest brother had begun to study the stranger.

The cap he wore, for one, was familiar.

The eldest son went to the parson with his firewood and asked if he had ever seen clothing like the fur coat Frost wore, and the parson had to admit he had not. The eldest son asked the parson if it was perhaps odd that a man so strong would need to wander from village to village to find work. Having planted the sapling, the eldest son returned to his family, and tried hard to remember where he’d seen that silk cap.

The parson had never come to dinner before, but his request could hardly be turned down. Little Jay worked beside his mother, once again braiding bread dough while she worked to craft a meal worthy of the respected man’s standing. The brothers were not happy to have to wear their finest, except for Little Jay, who liked the way the collar of his shirt made him seem a little older.

At the meal, it was soon clear that the parson wanted to know more of Frost.

Why would a man so strong and so generous of spirit need to wander from village to village?

Frost dipped his bread, took a moment to thank Little Jay for his efforts, and suggested that anyone with a gift should seek to spread the gift as widely as possible. If strong arms made for shorter work, then were they to travel, there would be more gained from them for many.

Was it not hard to keep such beautiful white fur clean? And what sort of fur might it have been?

Frost sipped his tea, took a moment to thank Little Jay’s mother for the lovely blend, and suggested that everyone had surely seen a white furred creature at one time for another, and that it only took patience and fingers as clever as Little Jay’s to make large things from small things, and cleanliness was a goal worth seeking.

And how long would the village be granted the strength and giving of such a man?

Here Frost paused longer still, taking the last bite of his meat. Having come with the snow, it seemed fitting he’d leave that way, too.

Little Jay clenched his hands under the table. His father, uncomfortable with the directness of the parson, suggested it time for hot gin and lemon, and his wife went to set the pot to heat.

And that hat, the parson wondered aloud. How unusual it was.

Little Jay’s eldest brother remembered then. He turned to his youngest brother and asked him plain if he had made it.

From scraps, Little Jay agreed, with a measure of pride.

And this was how the parson’s gaze was turned to Little Jay.

After all had eaten, and drunk, and said their goodnights, the parson left. Little Jay and Frost cleaned the table and kitchen, and then, as had become their habit, they made up Little Jay’s nest of blankets and pillows by the fire, and then left them there alone. They went outside, and danced in the snow together, which Frost could call and conjure to play, before heading back inside to Little Jay’s bed.

From the hill-top, unseen, watched the parson.

The sheriff and the parson came for Little Jay after the Carver father and brothers and Frost had left for the morning’s work. His mother, standing in front of her youngest son, tried to refute what they were saying.

Little Jay, however, was tired of scraps. He was tired of mending the broken things of others, and watching others have lives he might never have. So Little Jay stepped forward, and told them of a scrap of magic, of a wish and a tear, and of how a man made of snow was the most loving thing he had ever encountered, of a man who loved him despite his size, and who danced with him in the snow and made the snow dance with them in kind.

Little Jay had been loved, and he did not care if magic had been the seed of that love.

They took him.

Little Jay’s mother ran to the woods, and found her husband and her sons and Frost, and it was as though she saw Frost for the first time. Eyes as dark as coal, more handsome than should naturally be, skin unreddened by the cold, unlike her husband and sons, and a simple silk cap that could have done nothing to keep the cold at bay.

She wanted to hate him, and though she told him what had happened and how it was his fault, she knew the words were untrue even as she said them. Her eldest son, appalled, threw himself at Frost, and so surprised as the big man that he did not stop the eldest son from tearing the silk cap from his head and flinging it far into the woods.

The eldest son turned, sure he would now see a snow man where Frost had stood, but Frost remained. Frost pushed the man aside, and began to run. Though Little Jay’s father and mother and the other brothers tried to chase after him, the snow itself seemed no impediment to Frost, and soon he had left them behind.

Frost paused at the home where he had shared the winter so far, grabbing one of the unfinished straw brooms—just the broomstick—and then was once again on his way.

Down he went, to the village.

The villagers had seen the parson and the sheriff pass by with Little Jay between them, and many had heard the whispers spread in the wake. They lined the street, and parted before Frost as he approached. Each time his broomstick touched the ground, a tremor ran through the village.

The sheriff, seeing the large and angry Frost approaching, held out his hands and called for the man to stop, but Frost raised the broomstick and thumped it against the ground, and a wave of snow and ice burst forward, knocking the sheriff aside.

Frost drove his stick into the ground by the doors of the parson’s church, and the doors were driven from their hinges win a spray of cold.

Little Jay lay inside. Fingers snapped, each a refusal to recant; back bleeding, each stroke a refusal to speak of Frost with anything but love; feet broken, a refusal to apologize for magic.

The parson’s words of condemnation died on his lips when he saw Frost’s coal-dark eyes, and the fury within them, and he stumbled aside as Frost lifted Little Jay, and carried him from the church to the street, from the street to a field, and from the field, away.

While they walked, the snow parting and rejoining behind them, Little Jay reached up a broken hand, and asked for one more kiss.

In the mountains, where the snow fell thickest, Frost knelt down, and gathered Little Jay into his arms again. The small man was shaking with cold, and his body all but finished, so broken at the hands of the parson and the sheriff. Frost, created out of love and a wish, shed his first tears, and held Little Jay tight while he kissed him.

In that moment, it was understandable that both had forgotten what they’d learned.

But with that kiss, Frost and Little Jay both were reminded.

Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always become something else. Even hands and a heart first made of snow. A scrap of a scarf and a tear had seen to that. And now, a tear and a kiss were magic and heart enough to restore some of what was lost.

A magic twice mended, first for love and now for life, could only go so far.

Still, Little Jay took a breath. And then another. He sat up, and felt none of the cold around him. He smiled, looking at the man who had carried him from his village, and understood.

Little Jay rose, and when his hands brushed a tree, patterns of ice spread up and down the bark, like scraps of winter mended and woven into something beautiful. He turned to Frost, who nodded.

Their hearts were now the same, winter born and winter sustained. And since that day, they travel together, loving and loved, wherever the winter snows might take them. They leave patterns behind for those who might need to see beauty when things are cold.

Little Jay left the name Carver behind with his village, taking Frost’s name as his surname instead. In all the places the snow falls, there are none quite as happy as Frost and the man who used to be Little Jay.

But you likely know him as Jack.

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