Sharlie opened her eyes. Something had awakened her.
“What was it?” she whispered.
Was it the blue light that shimmered along the walls of her lair, dancing like sea-sparks across the pool? Was it the sound of water rippling against her sleeping ledge, or the soft clink, clink of jeweled mosaics on the ceiling?
“No,” Sharlie said. “It was something more."
She sat up quickly, shaking the sleep from her long body. Her tail brushed against the mound of sparkling stones and treasures she kept on the ledge. She scooped them back into place and lowered her face down to the surface of the pool.
Music, like tiny glass bells, echoed from beneath the water. Its crystalline notes surrounded a melody so quiet she could scarcely hear it. She could feel it, though, in every room of her sea dragon’s heart.
She dove to the floor of the pool and sped through her eating chamber, pushing out the bottom of the lair, and launched her body skyward, toward the surface of the lake. As she swam, the music drifted down through the water in blue, glimmering lights. Sharlie swam higher, following the sound.
She raised her head above the waves and spotted three cloud magai floating through the sky, far above her. They were enormous; the size of mist mountains. They murmured and thrummed, tossing musical snowflakes into the air. The snowflakes danced lightly toward the earth, adding to the cloud music with their own crystal song, finally melting into the cool lake, where they transformed into muted lights and sank into the water.
The cloud magai changed shape as they worked; first a pillowy gambolwyng, and then a whale...next a sea star, and then a drifter, all the while humming in deep rumbles that echoed like distant thunder across the mountains surrounding the lake. The mountaintops glowed with the promise of the coming sunrise.
Peeking out from between the cloud magai, Mother Moon nodded her goodbyes, her lovely reflection descending through the air on each snowflake, so that each one looked like a tiny, silver moon, carrying sky music down to the earth. The music infused the air with softness and light. To Sharlie, it felt like love.
Sharlie spotted Kit waiting for her at the water's edge. Kit's fur was frosted in snowflakes. Born only five moonspans ago, the young fox had never seen snow before. He gazed with wonder at the sky.
"What is it?" he said.
"Snow," Sharlie said. "Isn't it lovely?"
"It is," Kit said, catching a snowflake on his nose. He turned his head sideways, listening carefully to the sound it made. Two more flakes landed on his whiskers, blending with the first in tranquil harmony, like silverberries in a gentle wind.
"The first snow always brings something magical and new," Sharlie said. "Let's see what else we can find."
Just as they turned to leave, Sharlie and Kit heard the crunch, crunch of large hooves on the frozen ground. Piles of snow fell from branches and boughs as something crashed through the evergreens, coming toward them. Kit crouched behind a tuft of grass.
"Don't be afraid," Sharlie said. "It's only Bard."
Suddenly, a great moose with tree-like horns and a long, solemn face stepped out from within the forest.
"'Morning," Bard said.
"Good morning, Carysi," Sharlie said, tilting her head in a friendly bow. "We are looking for the magic the first snow brings. Would you like to join us?" Bard lowered his horns and nodded slowly.
Sharlie swam south along the shore, while Kit hopped and darted on the beach beside her. Bard kept up easily with his long legs and lumbering gait. The three friends moved without speaking, each admiring the way the world was changing before them. Sparkling snow cloaked both forest and lea in wintery white. Common stones were now miniature ice mountains, and stumps from long-fallen trees had transformed into frozen castles with white turrets.
They stopped where the beach rose to a wide meadow. The meadow was protected by seven towering ponderosa trees, grandmothers of the woodlands, who watched over the clearing season after season, their great boughs shading and protecting the forest floor below. Sharlie wondered what magic the first snow would bring to the grandmothers' ancient bower.
Sharlie heard a faint sound, like tiny chimes, rising from beneath the snow. She scanned the meadow, looking for the source of the sound. Soon, crystal flowers bloomed from the frozen ground. Ice faeries emerged from within each flower, stretching and blinking, as though awakening from a long sleep. They unfolded their glass-like wings and dashed into the sky, their bodies reflecting both the silver in the waning moonlight and the gold of the rising sun.
Suddenly, a pile of snow crashed to the ground. Startled, Sharlie looked up and spotted Miette, a young squirrel who lived in the forest. Miette circled the edge of the clearing, jumping from tree to tree, knocking snow from the branches, his breath making tiny white puffs in the air. He leapt from the lowest bough of one of the grandmother trees, bouncing happily onto the beach and skittering over Sharlie's head. Just as quickly he bolted away, laughing and kicking snow at Kit and Bard, his tiny body making a winding trail through the snow.
"Careful, Miette!" Kit shouted, leaping in front of the crystal flowers before Miette could crush them.
Miette laughed again. He sped about the meadow, shaking with excitement, springing between frosted grass and leafless huckleberry bushes, up and down the ancient trees. Finally, he fell into the brambles at the edge of the meadow, a mound of snow landing on his little head.
"Oh, Miette," Sharlie said. "Are you all right?"
"'Course I am," Miette said, shaking the snow from his fur. "Pretty, isn't it?"
"Yes. But we must be careful," Sharlie said. "It is the first snow."
"And it's magic," Kit said.
"Miette, are you listening?" Sharlie said.
Miette rushed playfully around and around a large stump. He ran up a young birch tree and back again.
Sharlie was silenced when a new sound came. They all looked skyward as the West Wind swooped over the mountains, bending the tips of the evergreens. The wind howled across the lake and made a circle around the meadow. Then it rushed upward again, all the way to the cloud magai.
The cloud magai tossed the last of their snow into the sky, giving it to the wind. The wind gathered the snow and carried it down, down, spinning and swirling and singing. Sharlie held her breath as it formed a white whirlwind in the center of the meadow. Taller and taller the whirlwind grew, the snow's music growing louder and louder. Sharlie gasped as the whirlwind bent sideways and then turned upside down, softening into the shape of a pine tree.
This tree was not like any of the trees Sharlie had ever seen before. There were no green needles covering its limbs; no rough, brown trunk holding up its boughs, no prickly pine cones falling to the ground. This was a snow tree. Each of the snowflakes that made the tree hummed with sky music, and its blue-white branches and boughs were so delicate, Sharlie could see the sunrise shining right through them.
The music stopped. The wind was still. Sharlie could hear only the shallow breathing of Kit, Bard, and Miette.
"Look," Kit whispered, pointing at the top of the tree. A snow nest had formed underneath the highest bough.
And then, a new sound. The crackling of ice. Peck, peck, pecking, as soft as a butterfly’s whisper.
Suddenly, the air burst with crystal birdsong. The song rang through the forest and echoed across the lake.
"What is it?" Miette said nervously, hiding behind Kit's fluffy tail.
Bard stepped closer to the snow tree. He lifted his muzzle up toward the nest.
"Can't see. Too high," he said, shaking his head.
"Can you reach it, Sharlie?" Kit said.
Sharlie stretched her long neck from the lake toward the snow tree, but she could barely reach the lowest branches.
"If only the tree were closer to the edge of the lake," she said. "I can't see inside the nest, either."
"And I'm too small," Kit said, shrugging his little shoulders.
Once again, crystal birdsong filled the forest. The four friends looked longingly at the nest.
"Oh, how I wish we could see what's inside," Kit said.
"I'm even smaller than you," Miette shouted happily, "but no tree is too tall for me!" He raced across the meadow and ran up the snow tree.
"Wait! No, Miette!" Sharlie cried.
But it was too late. Miette was so quick, he did not notice his tiny claws cutting the snow tree's delicate trunk. He did not feel the soft boughs breaking beneath his little legs as he climbed higher and higher. Finally, just when he had almost reached the nest, the broken limbs could no longer hold him. Miette tumbled to the ground, landing in a heap of snow.
The snow tree shuddered. The nest shook. Sharlie cried out as a tiny, white bird fell from the nest and drifted down, down, down, all the way to the ground.
The bird's body was made of snow. His crystal wings were folded against his soft back. He looked at Sharlie with shining eyes that were dark and lovely, like the northern sky.
The little snowbird tried to lift his wings. As they shimmered in the morning light, Sharlie could see that one of the wings was cracked. The snowbird chirped sorrowfully and closed his eyes. The snow tree bent toward the little bird with a desolate, frozen sigh. More snow fell from her boughs.
"Oh no, no, no!" Kit whispered, covering his eyes with his paws.
Bard lowered his head. A large tear flowed down his face and landed between his hooves. The moment Bard's tear touched the magical snow, it transformed into a frosty brown moth with miniature, moose-like horns, and flew up into the grandmother trees' branches.
Not realizing what he had done, Miette unburied himself from the snow and shook the flakes from his fur. He laughed, wiping his eyes and face with his little paws. Then, he stood on his hind legs and turned toward the snow tree.
His tiny face wrinkled with grief. He lifted his paws to his cheeks and looked at the shattered branches and damaged trunk. He saw the baby snowbird lying helplessly on the ground.
"Oh, dear," Miette whispered, his voice trembling. His eyes brimmed with tears. He looked at Sharlie. "Oh, my," he said. "What have I done?"
He rushed out of the meadow as quickly as he could, and hid behind the brambles. All the forest was silent now, except for the sound of poor Miette, softly weeping.
Kit, who was quite wise for a young cub of only five moonspans, sat near the baby snowbird, thinking.
"If only we could fix his wing," Kit said. "Then, maybe he could fly back up to the nest."
"I am afraid he's too young to fly," Sharlie said, "but perhaps there is a way I can help him feel better. There is something my mother taught me, long ago."
Sharlie took a deep breath, dipped her mouth into the cold lake water, and drank. Then she blew slowly over the lake. A layer of cool mist spread across the waves. As she had hoped, the cold air instantly froze the mist into tiny crystals of ice. She drank more water from the lake, and moved her face close to the snowbird.
"Careful," Kit said.
Sharlie nodded. Ever so gently she blew, coating the snowbird's cracked wing with a fine spray of lake-mist. The cold air froze the mist, and the crack was healed. The snowbird carefully lifted his wing and folded it against his back, his fragile form glinting in the sunrise, and gazed longingly up at the nest.
The snow tree began to sing. The melody drenched Sharlie's heart in cool tones of melancholy. It was the sound of moonlight and sorrow; a lullaby, and at the same time, a song of mourning. In her sadness, the snow tree's broken boughs drooped and crumbled even more. Kit stepped closer.
"Do you suppose you could fix the tree, too?" he said.
"I do not know," Sharlie said. "So many of her branches are broken. I can mend a tiny snow bird's wing with my mist, but I am afraid only the magic of the first snow can heal a snow tree.
Sharlie heard a rustling sound coming from the grandmother trees. She turned toward the trees as they began to move their limbs. The magical snow that had gathered on their boughs was released into the air. The wind carried it to the snow tree, so that it surrounded her in a soft, white veil, landing in just the right places, everywhere her branches had been broken, every place her trunk had been cut and torn. All the while, the grandmother trees hummed a soothing melody, a thousand earth-spans old, a song Sharlie had heard her own mother sing. Soon, the snow tree and her nest were whole again.
Next, Sharlie, Kit, and Bard thought about how to carry the snowbird back up to the nest. It was so delicate, so small. The friends did not want to harm it again.
"If only one of you could lift it up to the nest on your nose," Kit said.
"I am not tall enough," said Bard.
"And I cannot reach that far from the lake," Sharlie said. "We will have to find another way."
The baby snow bird chirped. The snow tree reached for the bird, stretching as far as she could with the tips of her branches. The sound the tree made, like sorrowing wind, pierced Sharlie's heart. The snow bird closed his eyes. Kit lay down and curled his tail protectively around his tiny body.
And so it was that Bard, Kit, and Sharlie watched over the snow bird, wondering what to do, while Miette wept quietly behind the brambles.
After a time, Kit finally spoke.
"Sharlie," he whispered.
"My mother always tells me I am a smart cub. A real thinker, she says. She says I can figure anything out, if only I will try."
"You are a good thinker, Kit," Sharlie said.
"I have tried though, Sharlie. I have thought and thought about how to help the baby snow bird. Still, I cannot think of a way to put him back into the nest."
Kit breathed a jagged, trembling sigh. "I don't know what to do," he whispered, peeking at the baby bird.
The bird lay very still. "I think he's getting weaker," Kit said.
“We will think of a way,” Sharlie said. "We must. He will not survive for long outside his nest."
It was Bard who finally thought of a way to help the baby bird. Bard, who had been silent all this time, mourning the broken snow tree, guarding the snow bird, and worrying over poor Miette.
"I have been thinking, too," Bard said. "Perhaps I could put the little one back up there, after all.
"But how?" Kit said.
Bard lowered his large head and wide horns toward Kit and stared at him with both enormous, brown eyes.
"With your help,” he answered.
Sharlie and Kit huddled close as Bard told them his plan. The grandmother trees whispered their ancient lullaby, and the tiny snow bird slept.
Worried that the snow bird was weakening, the friends quickly tried Bard's idea. First, Kit carefully dug into the snow underneath the bird with his paws. Sharlie held her breath as the young fox placed his soft tail under the bird, and lifted his weightless body from the ground.
"Good, Kit," Bard said. "Now, come here."
Kit tiptoed ever so slowly to Bard, balancing the bird on his tail. The old moose bent his front legs and lowered his body down as far as he could. Sharlie cringed as Kit gracefully leapt onto a stone beside Bard, and then carefully climbed onto his back, all the while keeping his tail straight and steady. The snow bird blinked. The tree trembled.
Bard stood slowly, careful not to shake Kit from his back. He edged his enormous body beside the snow tree and gingerly stretched his muzzle toward the nest. Kit tiptoed across Bard's shoulders and balanced on the narrow ridge of his neck. He could not reach the nest from there, so he scooted forward even more, until he stood between Bard's ears. He placed his two front paws between a wide, solid place on Bard's horns and stretched as far as he could. Still, he could not reach the nest.
"It's no good," Kit said. "I'm not big enough."
Kit stood as still as moonlight, with the snow bird resting on his tail, thinking. Finally, he looked at Sharlie and spoke again.
"I have an idea," Kit said. "I think we can still reach the nest, if we try."
"But how?" Sharlie said. "Even standing on Bard's head, you are not tall enough."
Kit tilted his head toward the brambles. Sharlie's eyes brightened as she realized what he wanted to do.
"Miette," Sharlie called. "Come here, little friend."
The sun had risen two moon-widths above the mountains. In its light, Sharlie could see poor little Miette, hiding behind the brambles, covering his face with his paws.
"Come now. Please, Miette. We need your help,” Sharlie said.
"No...I...I...I cannot," Miette whispered. "I am so clumsy, you see. I dare not come any closer."
The snow tree began to hum softly. It was a gentle sound, which felt, when it reached Sharlie's heart, like kind words, or a soft embrace; like a warm kiss on a tear-drenched cheek.
Miette, hearing the music the snow tree made, peeked out from behind the brambles. He slowly approached her, one tiny squirrel-step at a time. The tree reached out to Miette with a shimmering bough and touched his head, leaving a crystalline wreath there. The wreath glowed like a diamond crown in the sunlight.
"Sir Miette," Sharlie said, bowing low.
Miette stood straight and tall, and brushed his tears away with his tiny paws.
"Very well, then," he whispered, his voice trembling. "I...I...I will try."
Miette climbed up one of Bard's hind legs. Bard winced as the little squirrel clung to his fur with his sharp claws. Miette skittered onto Bard's back and up his neck, until he was balancing beside Kit and the snowbird.
"Slowly, Miette." Sharlie said. Miette nodded, his nose and ears quivering.
He moved beside Kit just so, placing his tail next to the snow bird. Kit carefully tipped his tail. Sharlie held her breath as the snow bird landed lightly on Miette's soft tail. The snow bird gazed at Miette with his dark, trusting eyes, and blinked. Miette smiled, and sighed with relief.
"There you are," Kit whispered excitedly. “Now, Miette, you climb onto my back."
Miette wrinkled his little face and took a big, trembling breath. Then, he put his paws on Kit's back, lifting one leg, and then the other, all the while keeping his tail perfectly flat and still. Once he was steady on Kit's back, he faced the snow tree.
"Are you ready, then?" Kit said.
"I am," Miette whispered.
They stretched and stretched toward the nest. Kit's paws slipped on Bard's smooth horns. Sharlie gasped. Miette struggled to keep his balance, and the snow bird nearly fell from his tail. Miette quickly steadied himself.
"I can't, I can't!" Miette cried. "I...I'm so afraid. What if I hurt him again?"
"You must be brave, little friend," Sharlie said. "You are the only one who can help the snow bird now."
All the meadow was quiet. Warm breath rose like fog from Bard's muzzle into the cool air. Kit stood, still as starlight, at the base of Bard's horns. The grandmother trees watched silently, and the West Wind was still. All eyes were on Miette.
Miette looked at Sharlie, and then at the snow bird. Gathering all of his courage, he climbed from Kit's head to a bend in Bard's horns. Still, he was not high enough to put the snow bird back in the nest. He held tight to Bard's smooth horns with his claws, climbing up and up, until he reached the highest point. Carefully he balanced his little body, at the same time keeping the snow bird secure on his tail. The nest was just within reach.
Sharlie dared not breath.
Miette turned his body, and ever so slowly tipped his tail. The snow bird fell into the nest with a puff of white. The snow tree sighed, a frozen sound of hope and relief, like ice crackling softly across the lake in springtime.
"D-d-d-done. Done! He's back in the nest!" Miette shouted.
He laughed, hopping up and down on Bard's horns, bouncing happily over Kit's back and across Bard's shoulders. Bard stepped backward. Kit and Miette both lost their balance and fell all the way to the snowy ground. They laughed and held one another, looking up at the nest. Then Miette stopped, and looked at Sharlie.
"He's so quiet," Miette said. "Do you think I hurt him?"
The friends heard a tiny chirp coming from the nest. Then, silence.
Miette clasped his little paws together and stood on his hind legs. "Please, little one. Please, please be all right."
Suddenly, the forest rang out with joyful birdsong.
For the rest of the day, Bard, Kit, and Miette waited protectively beside the snow tree. Knowing how fragile the tree was, and not wanting any of the forest folk to make the same mistake Miette had made, they formed a circle around her, keeping watch, while Sharlie guarded her from the lake's edge.
Others came, too, drawn to the magic of the first snow. Lochsa, the mountain lion, arrived first. He crept from the forest and lay near the brambles, his yellow eyes fixed on the snow tree. Eiden, the Wolf Mother, came next, guiding her pack in a single line from the mountains. The wolves lay down together, a tree length from Lochsa.
Rabbits and minks, chipmunks and foxes watched from the shade of the grandmother trees, glancing cautiously at the lion and wolves, while all manner of birds gathered within the grandmothers' arm-like boughs. Then the forest magai arrived; crowforths and drymbles, tree sprites and fey. The gentle mule deer lay down beside the forest magai, quite at home.
A few others gathered in the meadow, too; those who were brave enough to venture into the snow. Some were old faery crones who had experienced the magic of the first snow countless times before, and who, child-like and filled with wonder, always sought it again. The faery crones were followed by younglings who had heard their tales and believed them. They sat wide-eyed at the edge of the forest, knowing a sleep-time story was coming true before their eyes.
Sharlie was joined at the lake's edge by geese and ducks, herons, swans and pelicans. Schools of shining rainbow fish swam about her enormous body and darted under and around her long tail. Water fey and fleur rested on the snowy beach beside her, their tails moving back and forth with the gentle waves, while the cloud magai drifted high above.
Together they watched the nest, wondering what would happen next. And as they watched, the snow bird grew. The first time he raised his head, blinking sleepily and then settling into his soft bed of snow again, he was only the size of a sparrow. By the time the sun was high in the sky, they could see him standing at the edge of the nest, as large as a seabird. He raised his crystal wings and the snow tree sang to him, a song of joy and love. Surrounded by her music, his wings stretched wider and stronger. Then, with the wind in her branches, she made a lullaby, and the snow bird slept again.
The animals and magai grew to love the snow bird that day. Sharlie could hear them whispering happily to one another.
"What joy it will be to see him flying over our beautiful lake each day," the water magai said as they rested on the shore.
"Perhaps he will sing with us every morning, before the sunrise," the birds whispered from their perches in the arms of the grandmother trees.
Others worried over the snowbird's fragile wings and body. Though he looked strong as he stood regally at the edge of the nest, each time he raised his wings and the sunlight shone through them, the animals and magai remembered that he was made of delicate snow, of sky-mist and light. Loving him, they vowed to keep him safe. Sharlie heard Lochsa, the mountain lion, murmur gruffly from where he lay at the edge of the meadow.
"He was born of magic, in our forest. We must protect him from those on the Outside," Lochsa said.
Eiden and the other wolves nodded in agreement. "We will each take our turn, and keep constant watch over our new Brother," they said.
Evening drew near. The snow bird stood as tall as an eagle now. The setting sun blazed through his crystalline wings. His royal head shimmered in the same colors as the snow tree from which he came; wintry white and palest blue.
The snow bird gazed at them with eyes the color of shadows beneath a winter moon. He raised his wings, and sang out to the darkening sky.
What happened next surprised Sharlie more than anything she could have imagined. Suddenly, the snow bird leapt from his nest. Sharlie gasped as he soared into the sky. She lost sight of him for just a moment, and then he swooped over tops of the trees, flying northward, lifting his wings higher and higher, growing smaller and smaller against the horizon.
Everyone in the meadow watched in silence, waiting for their beloved snow bird to return to his nest. Perhaps he was only trying his wings. Surely he would come back to them. The snow bird kept flying, a tiny, faraway dot on the evening sky, just visible above the mountains. After a time, the animals and magai looked at one another, bewildered, with grief-filled eyes. The snow bird was gone.
The snow tree shuddered, bending hard in the direction of the snowbird's flight. She cried out in a mournful howl, a broken and hollow sound, the most sorrowful music Sharlie had ever known. Before Sharlie could breathe again, the snow tree had reached so far for her beloved child that she fell to the ground, collapsing into a mound of shattered white.
Miette sniffed. Kit wept softly. The animals and magai began to murmur to one another and mill about the meadow. One by one, some resigned and silent, others quietly weeping, they left the clearing and returned to their homes. Kit headed for his burrow, and Miette for the warmth of his nest in the forest. Bard wandered sorrowfully into the shadows.
Only Sharlie remained, alone at the lake's edge. She could scarcely believe the snow bird was gone, and that the beautiful snow tree had been destroyed. Sharlie's great ribs heaved with the pain of unexpressed sorrow, for she was still too shocked to cry. Her thoughts raced through her mind like a mid-winter storm, overflowing with grief for the broken snow tree, and for herself, too.
Finally, Sharlie wept, for herself and for all the residents of the lake and forest who had loved and protected the snow bird, and who had believed that, having been born among them, he would be a part of their world forever.
Where there had been joy and singing, there was only silence; where there had been light and hope, emptiness and longing shadowed the ancient meadow in tangible sorrow.
As Sharlie mourned with the grandmother trees, her head low, the waves of the lake lapping her body, she noticed that the tears the animals and magai had cried as they left the meadow were beginning to transform. Wherever a tear had fallen into the magical snow, the snow melted with the heat and pain of grief, and then refroze into a tiny cocoon. And now, from each cocoon there emerged a wintery moth, which fluttered like a winged snowflower up to the grandmother trees. Drawn to the light of the trees' ancient spirits, the moths settled quietly within their snowy boughs.
All the while, the grandmother trees watched over the mound of broken snow. Sharlie could hear them murmuring and whispering to one another, the wind soft in their branches. They appeared to be waiting for something to happen.
Time passed. The grandmothers stood wakefully beside the broken tree throughout the long night. Music flowed from their spirits; songs of comfort and peace, and quiet murmurings of shared sorrow and lingering hope.
They sang while the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and they sang as Mother Moon quietly took her place in the sky. They sang as the cloud magai drifted high above the lake, lovely in their silence, keeping watch.
When the long night had almost ended, the mound of snow began to vibrate and shift. One by one, each flake of snow shook itself loose from the mound and floated into the sky, reflecting the silver and light of the lovely moon, and drifting back toward the cloud magai from which it had come.
After all of the snow had returned to the sky, Sharlie spotted the silhouette of the snow bird, soaring through the snowflakes as they sparkled and shone. The snow bird turned toward the forest, sweeping downward, and made a wide circle around the meadow. The wind from his wings moved the boughs of the grandmother trees, and he sang out joyfully. Then, once more, he disappeared over the horizon. The moon sank behind the trees and the sun rose, gilding the mountains with its golden promise of a new day.
Sharlie's grief softened. In that moment, knowing the snow tree had returned to her home in the cloud realm, and having seen the snow bird soar, bold and strong, across the sky, Sharlie's wounded heart warmed with a hint of joy. She looked up at the grandmother trees, thinking of all the winters they had witnessed during their long lives; seasons of birth, death, and then birth once more; remembering that one day, the magic of the first snow would return again.