Jana was beginning to think that yesterday would have been a better day for it. But then, yesterday was a school day, so it had been out of the question.
Maybe they should just have gone to the zoo.
Her boots sank a full twenty centimetres into the snow. Left. Crunch. Right. Crunch. As used to it as she was, the pain in her calves was beginning.
No such problem for Tomas – he was metres ahead, crunch crunch crunch, little feet punching shallow holes in the whiteness, the seemingly boundless energy of childhood.
At least ten centimetres overnight, Jana reckoned. Harder to walk, and less likely that they would find any animal tracks, but when you promise your son that you will go out ‘hunting animals’, you go.
It was past eleven o’clock, the cool sun not yet overhead in the duck-egg blue, its glare off the white carpet not unduly troubling their unshaded eyes. Close by, the ice crystals reflected almost translucent white; far away, just a tinge of yellow to the undulating landscape. The trees had their fingertips weighed down, gravity and foliage in constant struggle, and over her shoulder, Jana quickly checked that the town was still there; it was that quiet.
Bird tracks were usually a safe bet, a dog, occasionally a wolf, and plenty of footprints. Tomas would follow most things. Neither were natural trackers, and not so much as a catapult accompanied them – to all intents and purposes it was a walk, but it was what it had become, and today it looked like being as close to a random walk as was possible.
Evidently not. Something had been out on the hills that morning. Or at least, given Tomas’ cry of excitement, Jana guessed as much. She scrunched off to the left, where the red-coated figure stood, a little finger on a little hand arrowed at the ground.
Jana reached the spot.
‘Person,’ she said, correcting him.
The depressions were footprints – that much was certain, but fresh they were not. The peanut-shaped hollow had smooth sides and was no more than five centimetres deep. That it pre-dated last night’s fall was obvious.
‘These came before the snow, didn’t they Tom?’
‘Yes, they’re very little. It snowed a lot last night. Where did he go?’
The head looked off to the left and with that, he began to scrunch away alongside the trail.
Jana was mildly impressed – the direction of travel was less than glaringly apparent but having come across the trail running perpendicular to his walk, Tomas was both clever and quick enough to set off in search of some answers. She followed, one pace to every two of his new perfect hollows.
It was almost five minutes later when she caught up with the boy, standing stock still in a small evergreen copse, head scanning the ground. She soon saw why. The trail didn’t vanish magically – it wasn’t that sudden, though it did end here. Amongst the trees, where only some drifting snow had blurred history and the footprints were noticeably deeper, the steady left-right march ended in trampled snow and not a single other thing.
‘Where did he go to, mummy?’
‘I don’t know darling.’
Jana cast her eyes back down the trail. Close by, it was apparent that there was no departing trail – the boot imprints clearly showed that. The visitor had not retraced his steps, or at least not without walking backwards in his original forward-facing marks for hundreds, maybe thousands of metres. It was almost as if he’d…vanished.
She scanned the ground, unconvinced by her own conclusion.
‘Maybe he died.’
‘Oh, darling, don’t say that.’ Her voice was tinged with sadness.
‘Maybe he died in the cold.’
‘Or he put on snow shoes for the way back,’ she offered, though without an answer to the question of why he would come here in the first place.
Tomas hadn’t heard. His gloved hands were pawing at the loose surface snow, scrabbling it away in search of a prize that his conscious mind would never truly have wanted him to find. Jana, reaching out a hand to stop him, retracted it, deciding that curiosity was no crime and even if it was morbid curiosity, ten centimetres of drifting snow would never cover a man who had keeled over dead without rhyme or reason.
She knelt down to watch but could not bring herself to help as the boy scooped and scraped, his little fingers surely touched by the cold but too keen to feel it.
A flash of blue appeared.
In the weeks that followed, she wondered whether that had been the moment to haul him to his feet and usher, frog march, carry if necessary, him back across the fields and home. To silence his words and force him to forget what he’d seen, say it was a dream, say it was an old coat someone had left, anything. To deny what they had surely found.
She didn’t. She sat there, on knees and haunches in the cold silence as Tomas, second by second, handful by handful, parted the icy white sea until they were both staring into the cold dead eyes of a man.