Whispers in the Blizzard
The magpie sprinted along the tree's bough and then stopped suddenly. Its sharp eyes caught the telltale lurching of a shiny beetle navigating the corrugated bark. The inquisitive bird tilted its head repeatedly in fidgety bursts of curiosity. Then, quite abruptly -- though not all that unexpectedly -- the magpie pecked the beetle with its beak, impaling the insect before swallowing it.
It was a very handsome bird: besides its beautiful, black feathers -- like iridescent obsidian -- the magpie sported a snowy white chest and wing tips. Its tail was long, thin and rigid -- a bit like a conductor's baton or a fancy cane. The magpie unfolded its wings, about to take flight.
Alas, the bird was barely airborne when a crude projectile -- a pebble -- struck one of its wings. It fell to the ground at the base of the tree. It was dead. A brutish laughter that sounded a bit like the grunts of a pig betrayed the bird's killer.
Rupert, slingshot in hand, could barely contain himself. His puerile mind could not comprehend the cruelty of his action; he could perceive only amusement, hence his snorting laugh. Albert, his grandfather, smacked the boy's head.
"Stop laughing!" scolded Albert. "That magpie did you no wrong."
Rupert crossed his arms and scowled. Though he was fifteen years of age, no one would have guessed that from his behaviour.
Old Albert and Rupert were both seated in a rickety, horse-drawn cart. The cart's cargo consisted mostly of huge wheels of cheese, buckets of cows' milk and smoked meat. They were supposed to deliver these goods from the small alpine village they inhabited, to a town nestled in the bottom of a deep valley a few hours away.
I still recall the mood that befell our small village when only Albert's horse -- a mottled mare called Gentiane -- returned, cart still full of dairy and meat, a full four days after their departure. Yes, there was dread but there was also an air of bravado.
"Poor old Albert!" exclaimed the goat herd. "He's lost somewhere out there in the wilderness. There're wolves in these mountains and probably bears too."
"We should organise a search party," declared the cowherd, wagging his finger like some ancient philosopher. "We owe Albert that much and more."
"Yes," cried another villager, "a search party. For Albert!"
"And Rupert," interjected the cruel boy's mother. "Search for my father and my son Rupert."
"Ah yes," the cowherd coughed, "we will search for him as well."
Finally there was a chance to get away from the fields and the rustic chalets and familiarity. The villagers organised a search party and -- obviously -- I joined. I really did want to find Albert. He was a kind man who did so much for us. Alas, I felt that this was more of a recovery mission than an actual rescue. Bearing hats and staffs, we met at the village's entrance.
"All right," said the cowherd, "Albert would have taken the path that leads to the town down in the valley. A few of us will follow that path. The rest of you will walk through the fields and the nearby woods. Keep an eye out for wolves and crevasses. If the weather sours, return to the village immediately."
If the weather sours? I almost laughed at the cowherd when he said that. The sun was a blazing fireball, its light and heat bearing down on us. We could not face the huge glacier that crawled down the nearby mountains because it reflected so much light into our eyes that a subsequent, week-long migraine was a guarantee. Clouds of pollen erupted from the green and yellow and purple fields all around us, and cheerful birdsong filled our ears. If the weather sours?
Anyway, the journey began. After following the rest of the group for ten minutes, I distanced myself from them. They were all too merry -- too unfocused -- given the circumstances. I really wanted to help Albert, but their buoyancy was counterproductive. For me, the lazy clinking of distant cowbells and the singing birds was all the company I needed. Eventually, I took a smaller path that branched off the main one and I followed it into a nearby forest.
I was sure I had seen footprints -- human footprints -- pressed into the dark, forest soil. Yet I found no trace of intelligent life therein. Even the birds were gone. A chill possessed the air and a whirlwind of pine needles heralded trouble. I looked up. I peeked through the layers and layers of branches and leaves and saw the sky. It was grey. It was ashen. The weather had soured.
I thought I would follow my footprints to find my way out of the forest, but I left no trace in the natural compost. A chorus of creaking tree branches and a howling gale deafened me. The pines swayed and seemed to almost tumble as the first snowy crystals hit me. A blizzard had begun.
Holding onto my hat, I ran. I dashed in whatever direction I thought I had come from, but I was lost. The forest was not thick enough to protect me from the storm, but it was dense enough to limit my view of the surrounding area. The wind screeched so loudly, I could barely hear myself call for help. The snow felt like fire and its extreme whiteness darkened my vision till I could see no more. I was blind and deaf.
Yet, I heard a whisper. It was so clear and so detached from the events around me that I initially dismissed it as an artefact of my imagination.
The whisper swelled into a shout that pierced the blizzard.
I tried to look around me.
"Who's there?" I called.
For reply, a warm hand took my shoulder and coerced me to run. I could see a figure with my peripheral vision, but the image was not clear. Nevertheless, I obeyed and I ran with the mysterious fellow.
I could feel we were sprinting uphill, up the mountain.
"Were are we going?" I asked.
To my shock, the cold suddenly felt less cold and the blizzard felt feeble. I feared that I was losing consciousness. I dared to open my eyes.
I saw calm fields again. Beneath my feet, a dirt road led to an unfamiliar village. The air felt warm again and the sun was perched at its zenith. I now recall that there were no birds singing or flying around, but that fact evaded me at the time. Standing next to me was Albert in perfectly good health.
"We were looking everywhere for you."
"I thought so," he chuckled. "Luckily I found you first."
"Luckily indeed! Where are we? I had no idea there was another village up here."
He led the way and I followed -- but not before I glanced backwards, to check the weather. There was no trace of a blizzard, only springtime jollity. We entered the village. It was not all that different from my one: there were old chalets with flowers flowing from the windows, slate roofs, overused cobbled streets and large wooden troughs of water -- nothing too unusual. The villagers, however, were a different story.
Most of them -- even the poorest ones -- swanned around with tangible contentment; huge smiles and twinkling eyes greeted each other amicably, and they exchanged handshakes and shared hugs at every opportunity. Stranger still were a few individual villagers whose appearances were downright unusual. Some were bizarrely squat, like marmots, others were excessively lanky. A few were so absurdly dishevelled that it was a miracle they got along so well with the most ostentatious villagers -- of which there were many. It was a village of caricatures.
One particularly ostentatious fellow was a svelte gentleman in a top hat and a very expensive tuxedo. His jacket was a shimmering black and his shirt was a crisp white. He had a thin cane tucked under his arm and walked about with a good-humoured swagger.
"He looks like a Bernese banker," I said.
"He's actually a very friendly fellow. Like me, he is new to this village."
"Does he come from the town in the valley?"
"No, I do not think he does."
"When will you come back home?" I asked.
Albert scratched his head and sighed.
"I am a bit tired for a journey back. I think I will stay here for a few more days. I am not looking forward to a long trek home on these old legs," he laughed. "By the way, how is Gentiane?"
"She's doing well. Gentiane returned to our village all by herself. She seemed a bit spooked, but nothing too bad."
Albert nodded while listening. Then, he found a wooden bench, sat down and invited me to join him.
"Please take care of her until I come back," Albert spoke after a long sigh. "I know she is a very old mare but she means so much to me."
His sky-blue eyes seemed somewhat tearful. His forehead knotted in concern.
"Of course I will care for Gentiane," I said. "I know how much she means to you -- the entire village knows."
We walked around the strange village for a while, enjoying the view of the mountains and the friendly people. During his stay at the locale, Albert had apparently befriended a huge, bear-like lady named Ursula. She had two boisterous and rotund twins who nagged each other incessantly -- incessantly, that is, until she would scold them. Albert introduced me to Ursula while we were touring the village.
"I don't think we've met," she said before shaking my hand with such vigour, I felt pins and needles in my fingers. "I am sorry we did not prepare a more suitable welcome for you. Your arrival was somewhat unexpected. And you, Albert, how are you finding your fourth day here?"
"Not too bad."
"That's good. Anyway, I'll see you later. I'm just going to check on Mr Dupont. He's having problems with his fireplace."
Albert and Ursula laughed like old friends. I guessed some sort of inside joke was at play. When she left us, I asked Albert a question that perplexed me since I had entered the village earlier that day.
"Where is Rupert? Is he all right?"
Albert lifted his shoulders and sighed.
"You know how he is," he replied. "He already got in trouble with the local law. The village's constable is interviewing him as we speak."
"Interviewing?" I asked.
I was so caught up in thought, thinking about what trouble Rupert could have possibly caused, that I bumped into an overloaded donkey. The poor animal flinched and brayed. His owner struck him with a stick.
"I am sorry about Benjamin," the owner said.
The donkey had several heavy sacks and a few logs piled onto his back. The animal's legs trembled beneath the weight. His eyes had a thick mucus glaze and seemed to be irresistible to flies. Poor Benjamin, I thought. Poor donkey.
Benjamin? That is an odd name for a donkey. The only other Benjamin I knew was an old neighbour who used to have a similarly overworked mule. If I recall correctly, the mule died because Benjamin -- the man -- worked it to death. Perhaps the donkey's owner knew Benjamin and his mule.
The Sun took on a deeper, redder colour.
"I think I should be heading back home," I said.
Albert inspected the changing colours of the sky and agreed.
"It was nice seeing you here," he said. "Thank you for searching for me."
The kind, elderly man told me to head south -- directly south. There, he said, I would find home.
"Please," he begged me again, "make sure Gentiane is safe."
"I promise I will do everything in my power to keep her safe until you return."
We bid each other farewell and I left the new village.
Excitedly, I headed south. I could not wait to tell the others that I had found Albert and that he was all right. As I crossed the wide fields, I narrowly missed stepping on a cow dung and tripping over large branches. Deftly, I avoided all of these dangers.
To my surprise, my village came into view very soon. That wasn't so far, I thought. The village was silent. No one was in the streets. I located Albert's daughter's home; that was my destination.
I leapt over fences and walls. I crossed the village's threshold, ran up the streets and burst into the house without even knocking on the door.
"Albert, I found him!" I announced, expecting to be toasted as the hero of the day.
Albert's daughter and her husband were seated at an old table, the deficient candle between them gloomily casting its feeble light onto their sad faces. They both stared up at me with an expression of great disappointment. Then, suddenly, Albert's daughter choked up and buried her face again in an old handkerchief. Her husband sighed, stood up and lumbered in my direction.
"How could you say that?" he asked.
"I really found him. He'll come here shortly."
"All right," he said, stopping me abruptly, "no more of this. My wife just lost her father. She doesn't need your tomfoolery."
"Albert is dead?" I questioned.
"Shhh! Yes, we found Albert's body just before that blizzard struck. We didn't see a doctor yet, but I would say he died around four days ago, shortly after leaving our village. My God, he was in a terrible state! I am sorry my poor wife had to see him like that. It was so hot these past few days."
I felt as though I had been stabbed in the stomach with an icicle.
"What about Rupert?" I enquired, not wanting to hear the answer.
"We didn't find him, anything, yet," he said before joining his wife in mourning.
Feeling rather foolish, I left their home. In the streets, I saw the cowherd holding Gentiane by the reins.
"Where are you taking her?"
"No one wants to care for an old mare like her," the cowherd replied, "so I must, you know--"
"I will care for her," I declared.
The cowherd shrugged and handed me her reins.
"I will care for you now."