She loved the snow. It was cold, obviously, and it was wet. But that didn’t matter – and if she concentrated really hard, if she screwed up her eyes tight so that her forehead hurt, if she thought about nothing else, she could pretend the snow was a soft blanket covering up the world and making everything beneath all toasty and warm. She knew the snow was dangerous. She knew it could kill the animals in the forest, it’d chill their blood to ice, it’d freeze the birds to the branches. But that didn’t matter either – it wasn’t as if she knew any of these animals on speaking terms. She knew only her father. So long as her father was all right, the rest of the forest could go die.
She loved the snow because it made everything seem lighter. It was dark right there in the middle of the forest, and some days for all its trying the sun just couldn’t penetrate the density of the trees that clustered so hard around the cottage. On those days there was no light at all, a candle could do no good against the blackness, the dark would snuff it out. But the snow was so white, and so bright, and there was no escaping that bright white, it’d get into even the dingiest corners. When the forest was covered with snow the dark was banished, at least for a while.
And when the snow was at its deepest, then, her father would say to her, it was time to build the snowman. Father was a woodcutter, and he took his job very seriously. He would explain to the girl that if he didn’t cut enough wood they would never survive the winter, their very lives depended on it. And he built the snowman with the same grim determination with which he chopped his logs. He would first make the base of the snowman, and he made it big and strong, he would use only the hardened ice that could be found at the very bottom of the snowfall, he would dig for hours just to get the right sort. “This is the trunk,” he said to the girl, “and inside are the heart, are the lungs, are all the organs. This will keep the man alive.” And then, when the trunk was finished, he’d set to work on the head. The snow he’d use would be finer, but he had to choose it carefully, because – “Inside will be the brain, the memory, the thoughts both noble and earthy, all the things that define him, all the things that make him special. The trunk will keep a man alive, but without the right head, he may as well not bother with life at all.” He gave the head a pipe for the mouth, one of his best pipes, he wouldn’t dishonour the snowman with anything else. He gave the head a raw vegetable for a nose. And the girl’s job each year was to find the eyes, and she’d scour the forest floor for stones, she’d dig right down into the snow with her fingers and her fingers would hurt with the cold. And they’d have to be the right sort of stones too, if they weren’t just right her father would shake his head and she’d have to search again. He wanted eyes that would be in the correct proportion to the rest of his head. She wanted eyes that would twinkle and sparkle and make the man seem friendly and make the girl feel loved. Then, when the eyes were done, they would slap a hat upon the head, and put a coat upon the shoulders, and that was it, the snowman was finished.
They didn’t make the snowman legs. “It’s not as if he’s got anywhere to go,” said her father. “And besides,” he added, puffing on his second best pipe, “legs are the handiwork of God, and we mustn’t try to be Gods.”
And that’s how they would live through the winter, the three of them, the father, the girl, and the man of snow watching over them.
There had been a fourth, but the girl could barely remember her. She had died a long time ago. And the little girl didn’t mind, her father and the snowman were enough. But she thought sometimes it made her father sad, because she heard him mutter her name and cry in his sleep.
The snow would melt. Patches of dark green would break through. And the trees would throw the snow off, and then so would the bushes and the grasses. And then all that would be left would be the snowman, and he would get smaller every day, and thinner too, his once healthy bulk would waste away as if he were starving. And yet still he’d give off the bright white light, he’d do his very best to cheer the darkening days – until he was no more, he was gone, there was nothing left but a pipe and a turnip and two sparkling pebbles, and the little girl and her father had to contend with the blackness of summer alone.
The girl fell ill. Her eyes rolled in their sockets, her tongue was thick and dry, her limbs were so so heavy. And she burned with a heat she knew wasn’t really there. Her father said to her gravely, “You’re going to die.” He looked so sad, and the girl wanted to comfort him and put things right, she wanted to put her arms around him and hug him, but she had barely the strength even to take his hand – this she now did. “I can feel it in my bones,” he said, “the same I did for your mother.” And he wept a little.
The girl didn’t want to die, not yet. She’d seen the world – or all the world she had ever wanted to see. But she didn’t want to die without her father, she had always hoped they would die together, on the very same day, softly, peacefully, in the blackness, or in the bright. She wanted to live just a little longer, just so her father wouldn’t die alone. “Is there anything you want?” he said to her, and that’s the reply she wanted to give, but she knew that wouldn’t be fair. So she asked for the next best thing.
“I want a snowman,” she said.
“But,” her father said, “it is not the snowing season.”
“I know,” said the girl.
And her father stood up, frowned, puffed on his pipe in thought, then nodded.
It was dark outside. And so noisy. Because the rain was falling, and rain didn’t bother to fall quietly the way it might do in more civilised areas, no, it spat right out of the heavens hard, it hit every tree and every branch and every leaf, and each time it hit it sounded a crack as loud as thunder. The girl watched her father from the window, and as soon as he stepped from the cottage he was drenched, and the rain delighted in a new target, and poured down heavy upon him, and slapped against his face and his arms and his legs and thundercracked just the same.
And he stood his ground, in the darkness, in the deafening wet, and would not be swayed.
And the little girl saw her father’s face set in that grim determination of his. And he reached down towards the ground, and grabbed for the raindrops. For the raindrops were heaviest there, right before they smashed against the forest floor. And with them he rounded the shape of a trunk. Then he reached high, on tiptoe, as tall as he could go. He gathered together all the softer raindrops, the ones that were clinging to the leaves and were too timid to fall any further, the ones that had opted to be spray and foam. And with them he kneaded a head, and set it hard upon the trunk. He took from his coat pocket a turnip, and this was the nose. He took the pipe from his own mouth, stuck it inside the rainman’s own, and there it hung, for all the world as if it were in mid air, and even the most spiteful of the raindrops could not put out the fire within it and the rainman puffed away most merrily.
The father bent down, found two stones at his feet. He held them up to the window for the girl’s inspection. She shook her head; he concurred, he threw them aside. He stooped to look for better. It took him two hours before he found the stones that were just right.
He gave the rainman his hat, his coat. The rainfall didn’t know what to do with the rainman – it didn’t want to hit down on one of its own kind. The rainman flowed water from his head to the ground, but he stood apart from the storm and was dry.
Father whispered to the rainman. Something straight into his ears, or where his ears would have been. Father whispered close. And the pipe twitched, as if caught in the rainman’s smile.
Father went back indoors then. He was soaked through. But he shook every last raindrop off him, he wouldn’t have a single one of them in the house. Then, dry at last, but cold, so cold, he took to bed, and slept for days, and in his sleep he would sometimes cough and he would sometimes moan. And the little girl thought she might get her wish after all, that they would the both of them die together.
And all the while the rainman stood watch. The storm subsided at last, but still he stood upright, to attention, a fountain in human shape, a living cascade of running water. The stone eyes twinkled, the water running over them making it seem as if he were moved to tears. The raindrops gave off a silver light that shone through the cottage.
She watched him each day from her bed, and it seemed to her that the rainman was watching her too.
The girl recovered. And so too, at last, did her father. Though he moved more slowly, more heavily than before, it was as if the weight of water was still upon him. And at night, when he snored, she listened to the snore, and thought sometimes she heard behind it the distinct trace of a gargle.
She volunteered to go outside and fetch them some wood. He was still weak, and she knew how to use the axe. And he sat her down and spoke to her severely.
“You can never leave the house again,” he said. “The rainman and I have struck a deal. But if you stay in the house the deal won’t come into play, and I will not let him have you, I won’t, I would rather you had died. I will protect you always. You will stay here, with me, for now, and for always.” And the little girl promised she would never leave the house, because wasn’t this what she had always wanted?
The girl meant to keep her word too. But the rainman stood so faithfully outside her window. He never left her side, he never lost his resolve. He never betrayed her. Whilst her father slept, whilst her father sometimes closed the door on her, the rainman never betrayed her. And whilst her father slept, whilst he had the door closed, she liked to look at the rainman, because who was looking out for her otherwise? – not him, not him with his gargles! – but the rainman would, always would. His stone eyes sparkled at her. Never stopped watching her, never even blinked.
And the sound of that running water was like a whisper.
It was cold in the night, but as she walked closer to the rainman she felt a certain heat inside her body. And she thought, is this it, is this the return of my fever, am I going to die? But the heat fell nice, and her heart felt full. And the rainman was still staring at her bedroom window, just as he’d been positioned, he didn’t turn his head as she crept up behind him, he hadn’t got a clue she was so close, and now closer still, now she was right beside, now, now if she were so bold she could reach out and touch him.
She spoke to him nervously. “Sir?” she said. “Sir?” But the rainman did not answer, did not turn to face her.
“Sir?” she said. “I love you.” And she knew it to be true. “And if you want me, take me. Take me, I’m yours.”
She stepped in front of him, stared right up into his face.
Still he wouldn’t reply. Now, so close, did he not want her any more? Now he could see her as she really was. Did he find her voice displeasing, did she smell wrong? Her face, her hair, her body, all on display for him, and only for him – was that it, was it that she simply wasn’t pretty enough? And she cried, and her face turned to water. And still, still, he wouldn’t comfort her.
“Get inside!” She heard her father shout. And she could hear that he was angry, and frightened too – but she didn’t have time for that right now.
She touched the rainman. She merely brushed her hand against his cheek – it was so tentative, it was nothing, really nothing – it was the most innocent thing in the world, and the girl would still be her father’s forever, she had done nothing to compromise herself.
And the rainman’s body, it collapsed, the frame that held the water in shape dissolved at her touch. There was the smallest splash as the water fell to the ground, and there was for a moment the trace of a puddle, and then the earth had drunk the water down greedily and her rainman was no more.
The girl wondered if she might die then, whether she would just keel over now her protector was gone, she too would dissolve and be no more than a brief spray of water dropping through the air and be lost forever. But she didn’t die. She wanted to die. But she didn’t.
Nor did her father. She turned now, could see him racing towards her. And when he reached her his face was red with fury and she thought he might strike her, but he didn’t strike her. He didn’t touch her. He stared at her, and didn’t know what to say.
And together they went back inside the cottage. And that night the rain began to fall, but it was only a drizzle, it wasn’t enough even to keep them awake.
After that things were never quite the same.
It wasn’t that they didn’t talk. They still talked. But there was a hollowness to it, a politeness, and sometimes she could see her father at the dinner table thinking hard and he had never been a man who had thought much about anything, and she realised he was searching for conversation topics.
There was effort on both their parts. But it was rarely offered at the same time – he’d make a joke and it would make her cross, and neither of them knew why. Or she’d put her arms around him in a sudden burst of affection and he’d flinch away as if he’d never been touched by a woman before. And once in a while they’d get it right, their demonstrations of love would coincide, and they’d talk normally and laugh and hug and wonder why there had ever been such awkwardness between them and feel huge relief it had passed at long last – and then, the next day, in embarrassment, they wouldn’t know what to do about any of that, they’d struggle to achieve the same ease, they’d fall short, ease was such a difficult thing suddenly – they’d feel themselves slowly sliding into the same sticky silences as before.
That year the snow fell as it always did, and when it was at its deepest the girl suggested they build a snowman, and her father looked at her, in some brief surprise, and said, “Aren’t you getting a bit too old for that now?”
One day she said to him there had to be more to life than this. Forests, and woodcutting, and him. And he didn’t disagree, he didn’t try to hold her back. He made her a lunch, wrapped it in a large red handkerchief, and tied it on to the end of a long wooden stick. He asked her to take care of herself, and she assured him she would, a little defensively, of course she could take care. And then she left him.
She walked right out of the forest and into the city. She had reached the city in about half an hour. If she’d known it was so close she’d have made the journey before, maybe popped in on the weekends. The city was full of buildings that scraped the sky, and they blocked out the sun, but it didn’t matter, there were lights everywhere, so many lights, and the girl thought she would never need to ward off the blackness again.
She threw away the lunch her father had prepared for her, bought a coffee at Starbucks instead. The coffee was good. She would need money to buy more coffee, to flourish the way she deserved to in this brave new world.
She went to the tallest building she could find. She asked for a job. They told her they had no immediate need for woodcutters, but secretaries were always useful. Could the girl type? The girl said she could type. Could she fetch coffee? The girl said she could fetch coffee even better than she could type. The woman on reception decided to give her a trial run. She asked for the girl’s name, but the girl had never needed a name living in the forest. She tried of think of one, and could only come up with the name her father would sometimes mutter in his sleep. “Judith,” she said. For the surname she picked the one that was written on her interviewer’s own badge. “Jackson,” she added. If Mrs Jackson were suspicious she didn’t show it; indeed, she was tickled pink. “Why, we could be sisters!” Judith doubted it; the woman was at least twenty years older; moreover, she stank of nasty perfume; moreover, she was fat.
At the end of her first month there, Judith was rewarded with a pay cheque, and her name included in the employee directory, and an invitation from her boss for dinner and sex. The boss was married, and Judith wisely knew the value of discretion, and didn’t babble about her affair at the water cooler the way other girls in the typing pool might. And, indeed, when Judith found out one of the girls suspected her, she acted quickly. She reported her to her boss, and they had her sacked on some trumped-up minor misdemeanour.
She was promoted, and then she was promoted again. She found out she was even better at her job when she could make other people type and fetch coffee for her. Behind her back they called her the Bitch, they called her the Iron Lady, the Rottweiler, and she knew all about that, and she didn’t mind. Because she knew that really it was all an act. Really, she was just a little girl, and she was warm and kindly, but if she concentrated hard, really hard, and screwed her eyes up tight so her forehead hurt, then she could pretend to be as cold as ice.
She liked to look out of her office window the way she had in the cottage. But now she was sixty storeys up. She was higher than the clouds themselves. And when it rained she could stay dry, and she saw below how everyone scurried to the subway beneath a panoply of interlocking umbrellas. And how, when it snowed, no one went out.
She felt it in her bones, just as her father had said. She tried to ignore it at first, tried to bury the twinge beneath an hour’s extra hard cardio in the company gym. But she knew in her heart that she had to go back to him.
She told her PA to cancel a week’s worth of meetings, and postpone a business meeting in Amsterdam. She said she could be contacted on her Blackberry if it were really urgent. Then she caught a plane, and took a long taxi ride to the edge of the forest, and then walked six long hours into the heart of it. Home seemed much further away these days.
By the time she had reached the cottage, for all that it was summer, it had started to snow.
She found her father still chopping logs. Every time he swung his axe he wheezed horribly, and little bubbles frothed at his mouth. The arms were just as strong as ever, the arms were swinging axes by rote the way they had so many years. But the lungs were a different matter. He saw her, gave her an awkward embrace. “I’m dying,” he said, and swung the axe once more.
“That’s nonsense,” she said.
“Then why are you here?” He said it without bitterness.
She insisted he go straight to bed, and she imagined he’d resist, but he went to bed quite gladly, the fight had gone right out of him. As if he were happy for his daughter to take charge and become the adult. As if he’d only been waiting for this. He lay back under the blankets, and he was now as weak as a kitten, he’d never pick up an axe again, it was hard to imagine he could lift a cup to his lips without help. She made him some sweet tea, as hot as could be, and held it up to his safe as he sipped at it, and wiped the spillage from his chin.
“Have you seen a doctor?” she said, though the question was ridiculous. “Come back to the city with me. There are doctors there who will look after you.”
He didn’t even bother to refuse. “Build me a rainman,” he said.
“It’s not raining, it’s snowing.”
“Build me a rainman.”
“Don’t be silly.” She left him then. She turned on her Blackberry, she’d phone her PA, get her to arrange some sort of medicare. An ambulance, there must be some way of getting one through the forest. There was no signal. Damn.
She stepped outside. She reached into her handbag, pulled out her cigarettes. She lit one, gulped down the smoke hurriedly, wafted it away from the cottage window. She didn’t want her Daddy to know she smoked. She began to cry.
She dried her eyes, redid her mascara, popped a mint into her mouth. Went back indoors.
She sat with her father. When he was awake, she talked to him about the city. She showed him a portfolio she was especially pleased with, it had her photograph at the front. He said he was very proud of her. He said it right, but she wasn’t convinced.
When he was asleep, she’d hold his hand. Then, and only then.
In his sleep he’d mutter the name ‘Judith’, and she’d start, and then remember he didn’t mean her.
The next morning he didn’t say anything. She thought maybe he wasn’t able to any more. She prattled on about the portfolio again, she told him about her boyfriend, she told him that he would like him, she didn’t say that he was married.
She said, “I don’t know how to do it.”
And this time he took hold of her hand, and he squeezed it.
Judith stood in the forest and the snow fell around her. It was unhurried, lazy even, as if it knew perfectly well it shouldn’t be out this time of year, as if this were just a holiday.
She tried to remember how her father had done it all those years ago. She set on her face the same look of grim determination he had always worn. She opened her arms out wide, as if to conjure the snowflakes to do her bidding. She felt like an idiot.
Judith plucked the flakes out of the sky. The work was hard, they kept blowing away from her grasp, as if teasing, catch me, catch me! She caught them, she mushed them together. She built her man a body. She built him a head to sit upon it.
And it wasn’t perfect, and the body was too small, and the head a bit too square. And, worst of all, it wasn’t rain, it was just snow, snow.
She despaired. She gave up, right then, sat down upon the ground. She didn’t worry that she might ruin her Armani trousers or her jacket from Christian Dior.
The snow continued to fall about her, and it seemed that once again it was whispering. She listened.
She got to her feet, went to the snowman.
It didn’t have a mouth, not yet, but she kissed it where the mouth should have been. The snow melted in the heat of it.
And on she kissed. At his rough hewn neck, all the way down his frozen body. She kissed at every single flake, and at her tenderness they burned and died and the water was released from within. The snowman dribbled away, and the rainman was born in his place.
Judith stood back to examine him. Her lips aching with frostbite. Her breath now so cold, she had surely kissed all the heat in her body away forever. The rainman stood before her, all that water, every cell of skin a droplet of the stuff, held together impossibly in position.
He wasn’t finished yet.
For a nose she used a carrot from the low carb sandwich she’d packed for her trip. For a pipe, she gave him one of her Menthol Ultra Lights.
And for his eyes. She took from her pocket two perfect stones. The stones she had kept with her always, always, all those years.
She looked at him now, the rainman, her rainman. And this time he looked at her too. This time they were ready for each other. And Judith stole a look back to the cottage, and there was her father at the window, he’d got out of bed, he was too weak to get out of bed, surely, how had he done that? But there he was, and he was urging her on.
Because now the rainman’s arms were open for her. And she hadn’t given him arms. And he was coming towards her, and she hadn’t given him legs.
And she knew what that embrace would be like. It would be soft, like a blanket, it would make her feel all toasty and warm. If she concentrated hard enough, if she just believed. It would be everything she wanted. And still, still, she hesitated.