04 Leopards of the Snow

Higher than all the surrounding mountains, Mount Snowtopia stretched into the clouds. The people who lived on the mountain were called Snowtopians. Everything in their mountain village was made of snow and ice. They lived in houses carved from great blocks of frozen water, which were plastered daily by heavy snowfalls. They sat in chairs and slept in beds hand-crafted from packed snow. For breakfast they crunched their frosty-coated cereals out of crystal bowls so cold you had to wear thick gloves to prevent your hands from freezing.

Direct sunlight on the mountain was banned, and no artificial heat was allowed. Any rise in temperature, Snowtopia’s scientists predicted, and the school, the church, the shops and the houses, all constructed from snow and ice, would melt. Consequently, all year round the mountain had one season only: winter.

To survive the low temperatures, the Snowtopians wore furry coats and hats woven from the wool of mountain sheep imported from the people who lived in the lower hills. Permanent winter on the mountain meant that no vegetation grew, and with no plants on which to feed, wild animals stayed away. Well, all except one creature: Ookpik, Grandfather Frost’s pet snowy owl. As his top scout, Grandfather Frost sent the owl on regular visits to the mountain to ensure all remained stable on Snowtopia.

Only one month to the Yuletide celebrations now and the snow-covered mountain looked like an elaborately decorated Christmas cake. Perched on the very top of the mountain, the ice palace hotel sparkled beneath the moonlight. The villagers depended on the visiting tourists, their income and the industry brought in by the hotel. But this year was the coldest anyone could remember. And, as no fires were permitted on Snowtopia, the weavers and tailors busied themselves with orders for clothes with thicker lining and extra wool.

For the mountain villagers, accustomed to extreme cold, the new woolly garments kept them almost as warm as snow leopards adapted to sheltering in caves during a fierce blizzard. Not so the tourists. The hotel catered for over five hundred visitors but with less than thirty days to Christmas, there were nine guests made up of one family and a newly wed couple. And both parties had informed Mikhail Alexandrov, the hotel owner, of their intentions to leave as soon as the latest cold spell lifted and a sled and dogs could be used to whisk them safely down the treacherous mountain path.

Like the hoary breath that had turned the snowfall on the mountain to a treacherous shroud of ice, panic gripped the mountain people, turning, it seemed, even their thoughts to frozen and impenetrable fear. People regarded each other through eyes that didn’t appear to register. They listened with ears that couldn’t hear beyond their own sense of impending dread. Only one man, the owner of the ice hotel, remained calm. Time to call a meeting, he decided.

Dressed in their extra warm coats, capes and hats, the Snowtopians arrived to the hotel meeting room. Those living close to the hotel trudged through the heavy snow on snowshoes; some on snowmobiles, while others came on sleds pulled by anxious huskies that yipped and yapped. Little conversation did they exchange together beyond how relaxed Mikhail Alexandrov looked. And, indeed, nobody could recall the hotel owner ever looking any way other than at ease with himself and the world in all the years they had known him.

The mummers petered out when Mikhail climbed the steps to the stage and stood before a microphone.

Without introduction or explanation, he opened with just three words: “The snow leopard,” he said, paused, smiled, stepped back from the microphone and let his eyes wander around the puzzled crowd. He then stepped forward. “The snow leopard is the solution to our problem, my friends.”

The Snowtopians turned to each other, shook their heads and frowned. “His brain has seized up,” said a mechanic who specialised in snowmobiles.

The snow-carpenter agreed. “Mikhail’s head has finally turned to sawdust slush,” he said.
Before he went on to give them a short lecture on the snow leopard, the hotel owner drew his audience’s attention to a very special guest who had just flown in from the faraway and ancient woodland of Veliky Ustyung: Ookpik, Grandfather Frost’s pet snowy owl.

The crowd turned round to see Ookpik perched high up on the ceiling’s chandelier made from a thousand diamond-shaped ice-cubes. Mikhail Alexandrov invited Ookpik to join him on stage.
“Hooo-uh, hooo-uh,” Ookpik said, left his perch and sailed on silent wings over the heads of the Snowtopians and came to rest on a frozen tree-stump placed for that purpose next to Mikhail Alexandrov’s lectern.

The crowd applauded.

Now that he had their full attention, Mikhail Alexandrov told them of his ingenious plan to bring back the tourists to Snowtopia. The leopard, he explained, was perfectly adapted to a freezing mountainous environment, exactly like the conditions on Snowtopia. The animal’s body was stocky and its fur dense, its feet wide to distribute body weight on soft snow, and, most importantly, the cat’s tail was so round and thick, the leopard used it like a blanket to keep its face warm while it slept during particularly bad weather.

By the looks on some of the faces, Mikhail Alexandrov believed his plan already beginning to stick and whiten, spreading like fallen snow.

“It takes about six snow leopard skins to make a fur coat,” he said.

Around the hall the crowd exchanged looks of horror. They nonetheless applauded. For everyone knew how ruthless Mikhail Alexandrov could be in business, but the idea of killing the snow leopards was lunacy.

A wink from Ookpik in their direction, however, reassured them that Grandfather Frost would soon be aware of their troubles.

For now they didn’t dare show any disapproval. The livelihood of every man and woman on Snowtopia depended on Mikhail Alexandrov and his ice palace hotel. In the past a few Snowtopian’s had disagreed with him about the permanent ban on sunshine. Without discussion, Mikhail Alexandrov had banished these men to the lower hills.

So, for their future’s sake, the audience cheered, whooped and clapped their hands.
Mikhail nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You understand me. We can offer our guests coats, hats and moccasins fashioned from the animal whose fur is thick enough to live all-year round with Grandfather Frost, if he so decided.” He shifted his attention to Ookpik beside him and raised his eyebrows. Ookpik blinked his huge yellow eyes, but showed no emotion.

One of the tailors in the centre of the crowd, a normally quiet man, put up his hand. His bloated face seemed ready to implode.

“Yes sir,” Mikhail said.

“The tails,” he said. “The tails will make wonderful scarves.” The tailor had no intention of fashioning scarves from the animal’s tails. He just wanted to please the hotel owner.

“Exactly,” Mikhail said. “We’re driving in the same blizzard you and I.”

Not used to compliments, the tailor chuckled, pressed his hand to his mouth, and glanced about for further approval.

Mikhail Alexandrov then explained that he had learned from a guest one time that there was around three and a half thousand snow leopards left in the world - a sufficient number to fashion more than five hundred coats and other garments: plenty for his hotel guests. Getting hold of these leopard skins, he said, would be difficult. For one thing, there were no guns in Snowtopia. Without creatures to hunt, weapons were unnecessary. Besides, a single rifle report was likely to start an avalanche. So all weapons, like the sun, were banned.

He had considered purchasing the hunting equipment from the towns and villages in the lower mountains. But the Snowtopians were a private people and, beyond trading with outsiders and catering for their visitors, they kept their affairs to themselves as best they could. No, he had an alternative plan: the job of tracking down and capturing alive the snow leopards would be given to the husky trainers and handlers. The handlers were the only Snowtopians ever to move through the world outside Snowtopia. A necessity when they travelled to collect their dogs.

These men were experienced in the ways of animals. They lived with them, knew their dietary and physical requirements. They understood them. And if they could learn the ways of one creature, they could learn and master the ways of another.

Like everybody else, the dog trainers and handlers valued their jobs, and so agreed to carry out the hotel owner’s plan. Besides, as soon as Grandfather Frost learned from Ookpik Mikhail Alexandrov’s crazy plan to turn the snow leopards into fur coats, no harm could surely come to these elusive creatures.

Mikhail Alexandrov’s theory about the dog handlers and keepers’ knowledge of animals proved right. Within a few weeks, they returned from far-flung places like China, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Nepal and India, their sleds crammed with nearly three thousand snow leopards thrust up like deer with ropes made from sheep’s wool around their legs.

The meeting room in the ice palace they used as a temporary communal cage to await the arrival of the butcher from the lower mountains. No choice had Mikhail Alexandrov at this stage except to let an outsider know about the - up till now - very secret project. Off he sent by moonlight a dog musher, his sled and team for the lower hills, ensuring that he keep secret from the butcher the need for his services until his arrival in Snowtopia.

On his journey downhill and across the jagged hills and open tundra, the musher in his loneliness and guilt cried out for Grandfather Frost’s help.

From their beds of snow in their icehouses, the Snowtopians could hear the wails and growls made by three thousand snow leopards coming from the ice palace. They too, unable to sleep, awaited Grandfather Frost’s arrival. Filled with doubt, they imagined terrible possibilities: maybe Ookpik got caught up in a snowstorm and never made it home to Veliky Ustyung. What if Grandfather Frost’s beautiful daughter the Snow Maiden was ill and he had to stay by her bedside? And a million other tragedies they imagined through the long, dark night.

Just before dawn something strange began to happen. The dry coldness of their beds was replaced by a warming wetness; and from the ceilings fell droplets, at first intermittently and then steadily. Everything was melting. There followed shouts and cries around the mountain as people called out to neighbours their horror at the brightening mountains below them.

Overnight the snow had completely melted. The lower mountains appeared as they did in springtime: lush and green.

Baying dogs turned the Snowtopians attention to the dog handler and the butcher arriving at a slow pace through slushy snow.

Mikhail Alexandrov quickly informed the butcher as to why he had been summoned. But asked him even more speedily for his ideas on this strange phenomenon.

The butcher shook his jowly face. “Oh my word,” he said. “You’ve ruined us all. Oh my word.”

The hotel owner told the butcher to calm down, and granted him that he would accept responsibility for whatever harm he may have caused, but what exactly had he ruined and how?

“Winter,” the butcher said. “With most of the snow leopards removed from the mountains, Winter has been fooled. He believes it time for him to go on his holidays and has left to join his friend Autumn elsewhere in the world.”

But how could that be? Grandfather Frost controlled the seasons. The consequences, however, for Mikhail Alexandrov, were as stark as a whiteout. Springtime, confused too, seemed to have got excited and travelled on up in to Snowtopia where she must have heard the mews, hisses and growls of the snow leopards.

To all listening to the exchange between the hotel owner and the butcher, a realisation, like the North Wind’s breath laced with icicles, swept over them. Every head twisted towards the mountaintop and the collapsing ice palace, followed by three thousand snow leopards charging and bounding down the mountain.

Men, women, children and dogs, shouted, screamed, yelped and scattered while the leap of leopards sprinted, slipped and slid by them back to the freedom of their own lands.

When all had finally settled down, they watched a large figure and a smaller one approaching from the ruined ice palace: Grandfather Frost and his daughter the Snow Maiden. Dressed in his red and gold heel-length fur coat, Grandfather Frost stepped back to allow his daughter arrive before him.

“Happy Christmas,” she said to Mikhail Alexandrov, and held out to him something small and white.

Mikhail accepted the gift.

Everybody gasped at the thing given Mikhail by the girl.

Never had they seen anything so wondrous. Such perfection. Like a snowflake before it came to rest and bled into a thousand others, but what was it?

“It’s a snowdrop,” the Snow Maiden said. “I guess it’s been sleeping under the snow forever, just waiting to wake up.”

Mikhail Alexandrov let his head droop into his own chest. “I’m so sorry,” he said to Grandfather Frost. “My need to save the hotel and the livelihood of all of Snowtopia left me snow-blind to the rights of other creatures.”

Grandfather Frost touched Mikhail’s shoulder with his magical staff. “There are those who make mistakes and learn nothing,” he said. “You have learned well. Now, come. It’s Christmas. I have a gift for you and your people.”

A piercing whistle screeched from the air, pulling the Snowtopians’ gaze skyward.

“An eagle,” Grandfather Frost offered without being asked. Ookpik, on his shoulder crouched and clacked his beak as a warning to the eagle.

Hearing the eagle’s cry, the Sun stirred and pushed aside the grey clouds.

The rays from the Sun on the people’s raised faces caressed like a mother’s touch.

By nightfall Winter, a little embarrassed at being duped by Grandfather Frost, had returned to Snowtopia. As he passed the retreating Springtime, both seasons were too ashamed to acknowledge the other with even a glance.

But, following Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden, Mikhail Alexandrov and the mountain people were already nearing the lower hills to live a new life and celebrate their first Christmas where the Sun shone, flowers bloomed, the eagle soared, and where the snow leopard, wearing his beautiful coat, roamed free and let the seasons know their time to shine.

Critique: The story moves too slow at first. The narrator and Mikhail tell us too much that would be better revealed in dialog and action. The part from the capture of the snow leopards through the end goes way too fast. Need more time spent on the appearance of Grandfather Frost and his daughter and more details on Mikhail’s character change.

What I liked best: A story line I’ve never seen before. That’s good. I like the imagery of the frozen village, the greed, the repentance. The little dialog you do have is fun.

Publication ready: No, but it has potential. Could be a nice picture book.


Thoughtful Reader said...

Quaint little story. Very lovely and descriptive writing. It's a little too descriptive at the beginning with little action to draw me in, but the whole thing reads more like a fairytale with a pretty general plot and hokey little names. It doesn't suck me in or grip me or change my life, but it's a very nice read. And again, great descriptive writing.

~T~ said...

If Winter follows the snow leopards, and they are all in Snowtopia, why is Snowtopia melting? And how do you ban sunlight on the tallest peak?

This is certainly a chilling tale of greed, survival, and the triumph of animal rights. I love the personification of the seasons at the end.