The Warmth of Sun in Winter

A little after noon, his morning work done, Hul crawls from his stone cottage to watch the sunrise. A blue wash saturates the snow-covered plains. The few trees left look black. Clusters of boulders drift like fog.  There are no shadows, and in three days there will be no sun.

Hul leans against his cottage and chews some jerky. He likes the starlit season, dreaming all day, despite the cold, of shadows cast on far off worlds; but he prefers the dawn. How the snow whitens like cream as the sun approaches. How the trees turn a brown as rich as skin. How the boulders bloom with moss and lichen. What Hul loves most, though, is seeing Flyte top the hill nearby and wave.

He swallows and waves back. Flyte gestures for him to join her. He tries to run casually.

“Were you waiting for me?” she says.

“No,” he says and points. “For the sun.”

Skeptical, Flyte looks over her shoulder. A pale white gleam dissolves the horizon. With a deep breath she gathers it into her face, which glows. Flyte touches his arm.

“Do you want to see something?" she says.

Hul nods, except he has his afternoon work. The tribe has much to do in the next three days.

Flyte reads his expression and peers around his arm. "Have you seen the chief?" The chief is her father.

"Not today."

"Good," she says and tugs his arm. "Come on. It won't take long."

Now Hul’s face glows. Winter can wait.

They half-slide down the other side of the hill on the soles of their soft hide boots. They crunch over the beet and potato fields, skirt the ancient barns made of crumble stone and rot iron, and head toward another hill.

Flyte points at the top. A silhouette stands against the brightening sky.

“Who’s that?” Hul says. He grips his bone knife.

Flyte laughs. “You’ll see.” She races up the hill.

Hul follows. He wants to get in front of her, but she's too quick, so he holds his knife until he can see what made the silhouette. Then he feels foolish.

"Careful," Flyte says. "Don't touch."

She steps aside so Hul can look at the head-high stack of carefully balanced crumble stones.

Even with the half-risen sun behind her, Flyte’s eyes shine. Hul wants to say, “It's beautiful,” because she is, but--

"You don't like it?"

"Yes, for a stack of--"

"It's a person," Flyte says. "You thought it was someone."

"And it's a stack, a nice stack--"

"That's the magic," she says. "Up here it’s just stones. From down there, it’s a person."

Hul looks downhill. A dozen trails have broken up the snow. She must have spent hours making the stack. Harvesting stones from the barn walls. Hauling them uphill. Running down to check her work. Hours that others had spent preserving food, repairing cottages and helping the tribe.

“I know that face,” she says. “That’s my father’s face. You think it’s selfish, my making this." Her eyes darken even as the sun fully rises. "And I thought you'd like it."

"I do.”

“You don’t. I’ve seen how you watch the sunrise. The stars. Me. But you can’t see anything.”

She’s seen me? Hul thinks.

Flyte says, “I shouldn’t have bothered.” She raises her hand to topple the stack.

Hul does see something then. He grabs her wrist.

“Let go,” she says.

“No. Look.”

The low sun pools her shadow with his. As one their shadow reaches for the stack's. They flow together and surge downhill like meltwater. Strangely, though, their shadow doesn’t thin. It grows.

A bulbous head emerges from the shadow, faceless, but maybe wearing a hat. Shoulders bud and send out wispy arms. Its body balances on one skinny leg.

“You’ve made a giant,” Hul says.

As the sun glides atop the horizon, the giant dances slowly across the hillside. It bobs and waves and sways on the uneven snow. They can’t help swaying with it. After what seems only a moment, the giant shrivels. They hold their breath as it retracts. Their shadows evaporate. The sun sets.

Hul finds his hand in Flyte's.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

“I’m not sure I did see it,” she says.

Hul holds her hand tighter. “We should show the whole--”

“No,” Flyte says. She breaks away and kicks the stack until it collapses.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because," she says, "that one was for you.” Flyte takes his hand again. “Tomorrow we’ll build another for everyone else.”

Hul nods, but all he ever wanted from tomorrow has already come.