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FICTION Winter 2001


Cold Hands, Warm Heart
By Donna Farley

This story was previously published in Horizons SF.

I can see some of you Summerfolk have come here because you've heard that Jack Frost is planning to jump ship.  It isn't true, but I want you to hear why.  No, please, hear me out first.  I know what you're thinking:  a Hierarch of my stature coming over from the Winterfolk could make all the difference.  But I'm here to tell you-- ultimately, this is out of the hands of the Ecopantheon, Summerfolk and Winterfolk alike.  Yes, I'm including Her Ladyship in that statement, and I don't care who thinks it's blasphemous!  It's time we admitted it -- this nuclear winter wasn't the Old Man's doing, however pleased he is about it.  The mortals did it, and though both we and they believed it couldn't actually bring in a New Ice Age, I don't have to tell you it's already gone on several years longer than we anticipated.

I can see you flower fays and leaf elves all looking doubtful.  But some of you harvest sprites know me well enough to trust me.  Please, I only want to tell you my story.  And my plans.

I won't hold anything back, so if you're shocked to hear things you never imagined about Jack Frost, so be it.  I'll begin by telling you about a day when my heart was unusually warm.

You know, it always did develop a certain smoldering glow in the last climactic days of the annual autumn colour display.  And though I was always careful to hide it from the other Winterfolk, there was many a Christmas Eve that fanned the glow to a veritable candle flame, as I painted the windows of filled churches and fireplace-lit living rooms.  But this particular day, as I stood before my Overlord in the cheerless gloom of his glacial cavern, it was not the joy of my art that sparked in my chest, but rage.

"Scintilla had no authority to move without consulting me!"  I said, and puckered my silvered brows into a furious whitecap.

Winter grunted, fingering his beard of enormous icicles so that they jangled like ominous giant sleigh-bells.  "The fault is your own, Frost.  I have warned you often, but still you leave your sprites to their own devices." 

Well, Winter was no-one to talk on that count.  Because of the Earth's 23 degree tilt, he confined himself largely to the Northern hemisphere, leaving the "lesser" work in the South to his delegate, the Snow Queen, in her Antarctic headquarters.  But I let him finish his piece.

"How can it surprise you when they take matters into their own hands?" he continued.  "I for one am most pleased with this sprite's handiwork."

It was an old argument between us.  I clenched my icy teeth, and drew my lanky blue body up to its full height.  "I am an artist," I said, slowly and deliberately.  Heedless of the ridicule Winter had heaped on me for millenia, I still clung stubbornly to my vision of myself and my work -- which meant giving my full and passionate attention to the autumn colours, not breathing down the necks of my underlings.  I steeled myself for the Hierarch's customary reply, my frosty leggings asparkle and the painted leaves in my cap all quivering with my anger.

"You are a spineless son of a flower fay!"  Winter roared, with a blast of breath so icy it made even me shiver.  "I should oust you from your position in the Hierarchy of the Winterfolk, put Scintilla in your place, and send you to serve the May Queen!  Then you could spend all your time painting posies," he sneered, "and we Winterfolk might get some real work done in Autumn!"

"Our revered Mother would not allow that," I said smugly.  "My designs are the greatest of all her many glories."

Winter ground his teeth, making a sound like the warning of an impending avalanche.  "Boreas!" he thundered, and a moment later the North Wind came to escort me unceremoniously from the polar ice cavern.

 

When the Wind was gone, I picked myself up and dusted the snow from my jacket, sighing.  I looked up to see a being in scarlet robes and a long white beard smiling at me.

"In trouble again, my boy?"  The old man's eyes sparkled.

"Hello, Nicholas."  I smiled back.  "It really is unwise for me to be seen talking to you."

As you know, Winter deeply resents Nicholas and his friends, and even her Ladyship considers him an alien, an intruder in her Dominion.  She doesn't like to be reminded that there is any authority in the cosmos above her own, and I suppose it adds insult to injury that Nicholas, like some others of his ilk, was once a mortal.  Myself, I've always liked his sense of fun.

Nicholas threw back his head and laughed.  Leaning over, he pulled my arm to bend me down from my towering height and whispered in my ear, "You've never really been one of them."

I was startled and disturbed.  "Not one of whom?  The Winterfolk?  Or the whole Ecopantheon?"

"The ones on the Dark Side.  The light shone in darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it."  He slapped me on the back, and laughed as if this cryptic remark were the biggest joke in the world.  "Now tell me, Frost, what makes you so glum?"

I seated myself on a boulder of ice, drawing my gangly knees up and draping my forearms across them with a sigh.  Nicholas squinted one bright eye closed, peering at me with the other.  "It's something serious."

I squirmed at his perceptiveness; none of the Winterfolk was certain of the limit of Nicholas' powers.  At last I said, "I wonder you haven't heard about it, Nicholas."  My white knuckles were clenched into icy fists, and suddenly there were ice crystals forming on my eyelashes.  I turned away, but it was too late; Nicholas, the ex-mortal, had already seen the unheard-of shame of an immortal in tears.

I stood and paced about on the glacial surface.  "One of my sprites...killed...the entire crew of one of the mortals' space craft."

Nicholas was silent for a moment.  "My friend," he said at last, "I had heard it was a matter of faulty workmanship or some such..."

"She knew perfectly well the stress caused by her cold and moisture would be fatal!" I exploded.  The heat of anger in my chest was painful.  "When the taking of human life is involved, I am supposed to be called in!"

Nicholas scratched his head.  "Would you not have done the same?  Frost has been a killer before this."

"It was needless!"  The flame of rage was spreading; unless I got control of the wildfire in my heart quickly, I was going to find the ice in my veins melting.  I took a deep breath of arctic air to calm myself.  "Striking the crops so the mortals starve, or freezing people foolish enough to get caught out in a blizzard, is all part of the balance.  But this -- this was in a sub-tropical zone, and it was done from pure malice!  And Winter, may the Sun sizzle his beard, approved!"

I sank back to the ice-boulder.  My bones felt like jelly, not the steel-hard ice they should have been.

Nicholas stroked his beard thoughtfully.  "Tell me, Frost, how long has it been since you murdered anyone with your own two frosty hands?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it again.  "You know very well."  One Christmas Eve, I had just put an end to some hapless old man when Nicholas appeared on the scene to rescue a child who would have been my next victim.

Nicholas chuckled.  "Mere centuries ago.  You were rather proud of the job you'd done ..."

"I was not proud of it," I said.  "I told you Old Man Winter would have been proud of it.  He was not pleased when I allowed you to distract me from the infant by showing me for the first time what I could do with window panes.  `Business' should come before art, he thinks!"

Nicholas was grinning at me.  I knew he thought I took myself too seriously -- I daresay you and the whole Ecopantheon think the same -- but I couldn't help smiling back at him.

"I've been true to myself, Nicholas.  If Winter has any objections, he can take them to the Lady Herself.  I am an artist."

"Ah.  And what is it, Frost, to be an artist?"  Nicholas raised a mischievous brow.

"To tell the truth!"  My passion had made me so warm that I was suddenly alarmed to see a steam cloud rising in front of my face from inside my collar.  I gulped, and tore open my jacket to bare my blue skin to the arctic chill.

Nicholas fairly roared with laughter.

I turned on him, and with a quick snap of my frosty fingers gave his nose an angry tweak.

His hands went suddenly to his face, his mouth a round red `O' of surprise in the middle of his white beard.  "Ouch."  Then he chuckled, shaking his head.  "Ah, Jack.  You're much too good for these dull, grim Winterfolk.  That's why I've come to you.  Do you know about Winter's latest hopes against the Earth Mother?"

I shrugged.  "He's resented her ever since she called a halt to the Ice Age.  But no-one cares, Nicholas.  Nobody in the Ecopantheon, not even Winter, has as much power as the Lady Herself."

Nicholas raised one white eyebrow.  "Perhaps not," he conceded, "but there is an outside factor.  Tell me, Jack Frost, do you know the significance of the phrase `nuclear winter'?"

I stood as still as an ice statue for a moment, then began to tremble like a sapling in the path of the North Wind.  Nicholas may have been reduced to a comic figure in the popular imagination of mortals for the last few centuries, but his knowledge of them was up-to-the-minute.  He was telling me they were a threat to the whole Ecopantheon, and maybe even more.  At last I said to him, "What can I do?"

And he told me.

 

I know all of you must remember that autumn's colour display, the most spectacular I ever created.  Her Ladyship preened like a debutante in her new finery, while mortal artists struggled heroically to capture some pale reflection of my colours-- colours like flame and blood and red-hot iron.  But it was only a prelude to my winter work.

I laboured day and night, scrawling my message on windowpanes and glass shop doors.  I couldn't be too obvious, in case Winter should discover what I was doing: in the crystal plumage of every frost painting, I concealed my terrible and delicate etchings of blossoming mushroom clouds. 

"Look at it, blast it!"  I screamed through a window at the White House, where the President was pacing with a troubled expression on his face.  But mortal ears are not attuned to a demi-god's frequencies, and he turned and walked away from the window without noticing my masterpiece.  Instead, he gazed at a newly-hung painting on the wall of his office, the work of a mortal artist named Catherine Williams, according to the signature -- and an imitation of my own autumn colour display, if you please!  I clutched at the window's surface with such icy intensity that the molecules shifted, and a crack opened in the pane of glass with a sudden loud ringing sound.

I reeled back from the window, too late aware that my chest was aflame.  I gulped the sub-zero air, and threw myself into a chilling snowbank.

For weeks I had practised my art in constant pain, my body wracked with the stress that tore me between frost and fire.  Eventually the searing sensation became so ever-present that I would forget it as I worked, only to have it strike me with a vengeance whenever I paused for a moment.  But this time I had overextended myself.  When the window cracked, so did my resolve.

I lay face down  in the snow, wishing I were mortal and capable of fainting.  My heart was still burning, but I willed the flame to be quenched.  Even if the mortals were to see and understand the messages, would they do anything about them?  I felt the blaze in my bosom subside to a quiet smoulder, and I made up my mind to let my heart freeze to such a hardness that the Sun himself would not be able to melt me.

I lay there in a blessed deep-freeze, until suddenly I was jerked to my knees and found myself staring into the sharp, stern eyes of the ex-mortal, Nicholas.  He was not laughing anymore.

"Hmmph!  Winter was right, you're nothing but a God-damned flower fay!"

When Nicholas says, "God-damned", he means it, but I made no reply.  I could feel my heart cooling by the second, and I knelt in the snow, weak and disoriented, till Nicholas slapped my cheeks.

"I know thousands of mere mortals who wouldn't give up so easily.  What happened to all that artistic pride, Jack Frost?"

I refused to rise to the bait, concentrating on freezing my heart into imperviousness.  "This wasn't my first failure, Nicholas.  I got the same results in London, Moscow, Paris.  My work makes no difference."

Nicholas snorted.  "No difference?  Blast you, Frost.  Before there was any Yule, much less Christmas, it was only your sparkle that ever put any beauty into the dark days of winter.  In the old days, your art gave men hope, Jack--"

"I gave them death, too, in those days!"  I spat.  "And I will do so again.  The mortals are going to have their war, and before the dust settles, Winter will take over, for months or perhaps years.  I will be there -- picking off the survivors, like the vultures and coyotes who will be doing the same."  I forced myself to my feet, and felt the warmth in my chest fade to an insignificant spark.

"So!"  The old man shook his staff.  "You admit you are no longer an artist!"

Without answering, I turned to hobble off through the snow.  I was not going to allow Nicholas to see me weep a second time.

 

All of you Summerfolk remember when they did it: on Midsummer's Ever, just when the crops in the Northern Hemisphere were most vulnerable.

We Winterfolk gathered at the Hierarch's ice cavern, far to the north of where the forest fires were ripping a fiery path across Canada to one side and the Soviet Union to the other.  In the high arctic, the Sun never sets at that time of year, but that day we knew he would not be seen much anywhere for a long time after.  We watched the West Wind hurrying the fires along and casting great black smoke plumes to the sprites of the upper air, who spread them to make a smothering tent between earth and sky.  The Aurora Borealis fairly screamed in protest.

"Don't set your hopes too high," Winter warned us.  "It may not be the longest Winter ever.  But with the things that come after--"  He smiled, as broadly as he had the day he murdered the Titanic with an iceberg.  "Ozone depletion, famine-- let us see how her Ladyship weathers that."

I could feel the tingle of excitement in the sprites and elves and imps all about me.  Soon they would be kept very busy.

"There will be refugees, fleeing northward from the destruction,"  said Scintilla, her snowflake robes shimmering with her anticipation, "and before they realize the perils of the north and turn back, we will catch them..."

My icy fingers closed on her throat, paralyzing her voice with my frost.  "You will be frosting windows, sprite.  Taking human life is my responsibility,"  I hissed, and released her.

She backed away, her eyes round with terror.  The whole cavern was suddenly silent.  Even Winter made no remark about my change of heart, except to raise his hoary brows.

 

I am still proud to say I did my work efficiently.  I suppose I couldn't help making even killing into an art.  My victims had a gentler, swifter death than they would have had from Pestilence and Famine, from whose jaws I often snatched them.  I told myself it made no difference to me how much or how little they suffered, but the infinitesimal spark in my heart refused to go out.  It was encased in thick ice, as solid as an ancient glacier, but somehow it kept on glowing there, so small that I had forgotten it by the eve of the second Christmas.

Of course we Winterfolk did not call it Christmas, but the fourth day after Winter Solstice.  If there was Christmas anywhere on the globe that year, I did not know about it.  I no longer painted window panes, leaving that minor necessity to my sprites.  If they peeped through the glass and saw yule logs or Christmas trees or turkey dinners in any of the small rural communities that survived the War, they never reported it to me.  On my patrols of the roadways I certainly saw no peace, nor any sign of good will.  Straggling refugees, making their way from town to town in hope of food and shelter and a place to begin again, were shot on sight by farmers or turned away by paranoid townspeople.  I had an appointment with one of those unfortunates that very night, the fourth after Winter Solstice.

 

I found the place without trouble -- an abandoned church among a half-dozen buildings, the remains of a prairie town that had died when the railway was redirected, long before the coming of the deadly Winter.  A tiny building, it was nevertheless crowned with an onion dome that would have gleamed, had the Sun been there to light it.

A sign was painted in Slavic lettering on the wall by the door.  Chipped and peeling but still legible, the name of Saint Nicholas wrung from me the first smile my face had known in a long time, and I could hear my frozen cheeks crack.

I quickly sobered.  Bursting the lock with a single flip of the wrist, I stepped in.

The interior of the church was swept clean of any accoutrements, leaving only a raised platform where the altar had once stood.  The traditional icon screen must have been dismantled and taken away, when the town died, but the ceiling and the walls...had eyes.

I gazed around uncomfortably, for like any other member of the Ecopantheon, I would not by choice enter any mortal edifice, least of all a church.  This one was long abandoned, but I could smell a residue of power in the painted images.  The eastern wall displayed a Resurrection, the ceiling a stern Pantocrator and a Mother of God with arms outstretched in prayer.  The spaces between the plain glass windows, three on each side, were filled by saints, each with distinctive symbols and clothing.

I recognized Nicholas at once, in his red robes and white mane.  The large, knowing eyes of the icon were uncannily like those of the real Nicholas.

Then I heard the victim at the door, where my sprites had advised me she would be.   They had reported the woman near exhaustion and demoralized, and it was not likely she would be able to rally enough resources to survive the night.  Jack Frost had the mandate to end her life.

I stood to the right of the door and breathed a chill down her neck as she entered.  She shivered, hugging her arms to her sides.  Putting one gloved hand out, she felt ahead in the dark emptiness, and I slipped my arm under her elbow, snaking one finger in at the wrist of her coat sleeve.  She was young, and relatively healthy, if underfed, and her clothing was fairly warm.  It might take a long time to kill her, but I was patient as well as gentle.  I had nothing better to do that Christmas eve, and was prepared to work all night.  What I was not prepared for was to be seen by her.

She turned around suddenly, as if she had heard something, and screamed like a trapped animal.  I dropped my hands to my side, staring openmouthed at her terrified face.

"Oh, no.  No," she said, as she backed away.  She was halted abruptly by the wall that bore Nicholas' icon.  She huddled there, unaware of the painted figure that towered protectively behind her, her eyes locked on mine as if she were already frozen stiff.

I was no better.  At last I said, "It should not be possible for you to see me."

The woman gulped, still rigid with terror.  "Oh, God, please..." she whispered.  "You look too solid to be a hallucination.  Who are you?"

I had never conversed with a mortal before.  What was I to tell her?

The truth, hissed the spark of warmth in my icy heart.  It suddenly thrust outward into the ball of ice that surrounded it, piercing all the way to the surface like a slender white-hot needle.  A spasm of shock and pain nearly doubled me before I took control of myself.

"Are -- are you all right?" she asked.

I nodded grimly.  "I am Jack Frost."

She laughed nervously.  "That's cute, Jack.  I'm Catherine Williams.  Nice to meet you."  She pulled off one glove and extended her small, elegant hand.  Not knowing what else to do, I reached out and clasped it.

"Your hands are like ice!" she gasped and withdrew her hand, blowing on it before replacing the glove.  "Oh, well, cold hands, warm heart, right?  So, what were you, before the War, with a name like 'Jack Frost'?  A rock musician?  A mystery writer?"

"An artist," I said.  The spark in my heart, laser-like, carved another pinhole through the ice armour, but this time I was steeled for it and revealed no pain to the mortal's eyes.

She let out a startled breath.  It hung smokily before her face for a moment, then vanished.  "Well.  It's still a small world, isn't it, even after the War?  I was an artist, too."

"You!"  I said.  "Catherine Williams!  You painted for the American president!"

"Why, yes," she said, still nervous, and I held the flame in my heart carefully in check.  It was not her fault the President had missed my message by gazing at her painting, but neither was she immune to the cold just because she was an artist like me.  I had a job to do.

I moved closer to her, and she had to crane her neck to look up at me.  She drew in a deep shuddering breath.  "You aren't...human, are you?"

I shook my head.  I exhaled, letting my chill breath drop gently to her upturned face.

Suddenly she bolted, but I snared her with my long icy arms, wrapping them around her.  "You can't run from Frost, Catherine Williams."

She stood shivering in my grip.  I released one arm only, to run a numbing fingertip across her nose and cheeks.

"You're going to kill me!" she whispered, and steamy tears spilled from her dark, shiny mortal eyes.  I jerked my hand away from the heat of the tears, but ignored the flame I felt kindling in my chest.  I had never looked in a victim's eyes before, but neither had any of them looked in mine as I did my work.  It would be cowardice to turn my gaze squeamishly away, when, through no choice of her own, she saw her death leaning over her.

I placed a frigid, whisper-soft fingerstroke across her chin.  Suddenly she pulled the woollen hat from her head, threw down her gloves and ripped open the zipper of her coat, struggling out of the thick sleeves like a snake out of its skin.  Faster than I could follow her with my chill touch, she shed her inner layers of clothing as well, until she was as naked as Eve.

"Let's get it over with!" she said.  "Go on, kill me!  I stopped at a farm before I got here, but they turned me away.  Want to know why?  Because I was an artist!  If I'd been a doctor or a nurse, maybe they would have taken me in, but an artist is just another useless mouth to feed!"  She laughed bitterly.  "I'll never paint another picture again, and even if I did, who would look at it?  So go ahead, kill me!"

The spark in my heart swelled to an intense, angry candle flame.  "Do you think I'm a killer by choice?  I was an artist!  The more the human race found ways to insulate itself against Winter, the freer I was to practice my art.  I did all I could to warn them, but they made the War just the same!"

She said nothing, but merely stood there in her courageous nakedness, and both anger and compassion fed the flame in my heart.  I knew unless I doused it quickly, I would soon be once again in the tortured state I had suffered in my brief days as a prophet of doom.

I willed the ice to harden, to contain the flame long enough for me to do my work properly, and I said quietly, "I will do it as quickly as I can."  I rested one frigid hand on her bare shoulder, feeling her shudders reverberate in my own bones.  "Close your eyes, mortal.  I don't know how you can see me at all, but you needn't watch me leeching the life from your body."

She clenched her teeth.  "Why not?  It's an artist's business to see what other people can't.  So what could be a more appropriate way for me to die?"

A third burst of white heat stabbed through the ice, and my frosty hand went involuntarily to my chest.  The juxtaposed heat and cold threatened to burst the ice-armour as suddenly as my hands had burst the door lock.  I swallowed, clenching my fists, struggling for control.

"I am truly sorry, Catherine Williams," I said.  "May you go wherever mortal artists wish to go when they die."

I lifted my hands again to place them on her shoulders, but suddenly she was enveloped from head to foot in a vast blanket of crimson.  Waves of heat radiated from the fabric, and I drew back, scarcely able to breathe.

"Hello again, my friend," said Nicholas, as he wrapped the scarlet cloak about the mortal woman.  "Keep wrapped tight, my child.  I have business with our friend Frost here."

"Nicholas!  What do you think you're doing?"

The sharp-eyed ex-mortal snapped his fingers under my nose.  "You are trespassing on my territory, Jack Frost.  And on Christmas eve, too!"

"Blast it, Nicholas.  I'm no vampire or werewolf.  It takes more than a cross to keep the cold out."

Nicholas laughed as heartily as I had ever heard him do before the War.  "Well, you have me there, Frost.  I admit you have every right to be in an unheated church in the wintertime.  But I won't allow you under that cloak to murder a woman who's taken sanctuary on my property.  By the way," he added, grinning slyly, "it was I who gave her the eyes to see and ears to hear you."

I stood flexing my frosty fingers.  No-one in the Ecopantheon had ever battled Nicholas head-on before, and I wondered if this was the time to try.

"Jack."  Nicholas had that mischievous glint in his eye.  "Why don't you paint my windows for me?  Something to make the place look Christmassy."

I glanced up at the bare windowpanes and thought, My sprites should have done that, blast them.  Then I turned an ice-hard gaze on Nicholas.  "It's the same trick you used the first time, Nicholas.  Get me busy with the windows, and the victim will survive the night."

This time he didn't laugh, but merely shrugged.  We faced each other for a long time, and the voice that finally broke the silence was Catherine Williams'.

"Take a crack at it, Jack.  I'd like to see how an immortal artist works."

Nicholas shook his head sadly.  "I'm afraid he is no artist now."

That was the last snowflake, the one that starts the avalanche.  The icy casing about my heart shattered like a crystal glass on a high note.  I flew to the window at the front left side of the church and flashed a coating of frost onto the glass.  Then I began to trace a figure with lines of sparkling feathers.  Something Christmassy, Nicholas had taunted.  My heart beat like a forge-hammer, red-hot and powerful, but my fingers danced over the pane, light as spiderwebs.  When I was done, a long-bearded prophet stood there, holding aloft a scroll in proclamation.

I moved to the second window at once, before I could be stricken by the sword-like pain.  I painted the Annunciation, a stout-hearted Virgin declaring, 'Be it unto me as you have said,' as steadfastly as Catherine Williams had submitted to her would-be murderer.

The third window became a sunburst of angels, trumpeting the message that would be Winter's death-song.

I crossed the nave, scarcely aware of Nicholas standing in the corner with the mortal woman muffled in the cloak at his feet.  Another trio of windows awaited my touch, and I dared not stop to give in to the feverish pain in my bosom.  I tore free of my jacket, but Winter's air did little to relieve me as I leapt to the next window and engraved on it a clutch of shepherds, who gazed in awe at the angelic hosts opposite them. 

I came to the Nativity itself with dragging feet.  My hands were as icy as ever, but my veins were on fire.  When I finished it, I -- Jack Frost -- I was sweating.  And still one window remained.

"Jack."  Nicholas' hand was on my shoulder.  "You have proved yourself beyond measure, my friend --"

I shrugged off the hand.  I stood, labouring to breathe through scorched lungs, staring at the blank glass.  The right design was a simple one.  It would take only a brief, if intense, spurt of concentration to complete.

I should stop, I thought, before this pain drives me mad, get them to bring in snow to cool me down.  But I had a sudden fear that the design would escape me, unless I outlined it at once.  I drew in one more breath, and pressed my palms to the glass.

With trembling fingers I drew the magi at the bottom of the window pane, their eyes raised to the dome of heaven above them.  Then I climbed to the window sill, reaching for the top, where I placed the most blazing star that ever lit the night.  One after another I drew the glittering frosted rays of the star outward from its points, till they illuminated the wonderstruck faces of the magi below, and at last filled the whole pane from frame to frame.

With outstretched arms, I hung dizzily on to the window frame, balancing on the sill on the balls of my feet.  The glory of the star filled my sight; a nova-like blaze filled my bosom.  I clung transfixed to the window, while sweat coursed down my brow and shoulders like a spring thaw.  The heated ichor was flowing freely in my veins, pouring down through my torso and thighs like lava.  It was only when the river of flame reached my hands that I moved again.

It stabbed at my palms like white-hot nails, and a faint tingling began in my fingertips.  I let go of the window frame, staring at my hands in horror.

"No!  Not my hands!" I screamed, and hurled myself at the window.

The hammering fever-heat in my head blocked out the sound of the breakage, and I landed in the snow amid a thousand pieces of sparkling glass, fragments of the great frosted star.  I thrust my hands deep into the snowbank, and clutched handsful of cold white powder, ignoring the cuts where the black ichor oozed out to stain the snow.  One tiny, bright splinter of the star was embedded in my eye, and I ignored that too, closing my eyelids as I burrowed deeper into the snowbank.  Steam rose around me, until at last I had the strength to sit up, the flame diminished once more to a steady candlelight in my heart.

Leaning over me was Nicholas.  The mortal, dressed against the cold again now, stood at his elbow.  I drew  a shuddering breath of cold air.

"Oh, Jack," the mortal artist said, "Your masterpiece--"  And she began to weep.

I have been painting with frost since before her ancestors painted on the walls of caves, and I needed no flattery from a mortal, but the fire in my heart flared suddenly because I saw she had been moved by my Epiphany.

I looked at her, but what drew my eye was the star that, impossibly, seemed to hang above her head.  My immortal body was already beginning to heal itself; ichor congealed on the surface of the lacerations, and the cut in my eye had closed smoothly around the star-shaped splinter of glass.  It shone there, now, appearing wherever I looked-- at Nicholas, at the mortal, at the cross atop the church dome, like a mischievous eye, winking at me.  And I did something I hadn't done since the day I became a prophet of doom -- I laughed.

"Catherine Williams, Jack Frost's works of art have always been the most fleeting.  Weep not for me.  It is only you mortal artists who need strive so bitterly for permanence in your work."

She smiled.  "So you think I should go back to my art."

I smiled back.  "And leave it by a window.  I'd like to see it."

Nicholas, leaning on his staff, was looking at me with a grave expression.  "What now, my friend?  Had you let the warmth melt your very hands, you could have joined the Summerfolk."

I stood up slowly, scooping up two handsful of snow.  My fingerbones were solid ice again; I let the snow fall and gave Nicholas' nose a playful tweak.  The flame in my heart still hurt, but it was dancing now, as merrily as a Christmas carol.

 

So you see now why I am resolved not to leave the Winterfolk.  Yes, it means I'll still have to do some of Winter's dirty work, but as I said before -- what I do is mercy killing.  But I will never give up my art again.  If I went with you Summerfolk to paint flowers down in the tropics, who would be left to paint the stars on the windows of winter?  No, on the contrary, the reason I've told you my tale is to lure some of you warm-hearted folk over to my service.  That's right -- for the first time in his eons-long career, Jack Frost, the undisputed first among the artists of the Ecopantheon, will take on students.

You're disappointed?  You thought I was going to lead you all in a rebellion against Winter.  But don't you see, that's exactly what this work is.

I know, there are really none of you to spare from your work.  Summer is under siege in the tropics, and you have to work twice as hard to accomplish half as much.  But I'm asking you to wage a war of propaganda and subversion.  Bring your talents out behind Winter's line of attack.

It's true my art failed to stop the mortals from pressing the buttons.  But it did save one human soul from despair, and also my own.

I have to warn you:  I'll drive you nearly as hard as I do myself, and I can't promise you'll ever accomplish even as much as the little I've done.  But if even one or two of you would say, Yes, I'll leave my bright floral palette in the tropical sun and dare to join Jack Frost's school of rebels as they etch hope on the mortals' windows  -- even one or two of you, ah, now, that would really be something to warm my heart.



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Posted September 2, 2001