There was a hermit, but this one lived in the woods.
Time moves on and everything changes. Today you donít find many hermits who live in the woods Ė or the desert or the mountains or plains. They live in cities. They live in tract houses in suburbs or high rises or tenements or apartments. They ride buses and taxis, drive Toyotas or Fords, pick up trucks or SUVs, travel on planes or trains from place to place, watch cable or DVDs, see movies or shows or concerts, spend their time in libraries or bars, grab hamburgers for lunch and take-out chicken for dinner. Times change and even hermits have to keep up. But not our hermit. He lived in the woods.
Thatís all I really know about him except for the story that follows. Why he kept to the old ways is a question worth some speculation, but no one really knows the answer except maybe him (though I doubt it), so weíll just have to pass it by.
The woods he lived in were nice woods. It had tall trees. There were different types of them and he could have named them for you, described the shape of their leaves and told you about the animals and birds that lived in them. But if you asked him to, he wouldnít. Heíd grump and pull his head down toward his collar as if he were trying to be a turtle. He would scowl and turn away to show he hadnít heard. He would stare off at the distance and kick a pebble with the toe of his old loggerís boot. You might feel that was unfriendly. I suppose it was, in a technical sense. But he was a hermit, remember, and thatís what theyíre like, unless theyíre the type of hermit that wants to talk you to death. The moderns are like that too, except that in the bars they scowl into their beer and at airports they scowl at departure schedules. This hermit was a traditionalist.
Most years it snowed in the woods. The Hermit would stand in the door of his shack when the snow began and watch the flakes fall. He watched morosely. The thing is, if it snows in the daylight, itís always late afternoon. Not because of time, but because the clouds and the chill and the light make it late afternoon no matter the real time of the day. After a while the Hermit would shiver and go back inside and put more wood in his old pot bellied iron stove and stand close to bake his hands and his backside in the red heat.
That year the squirrels and rabbits didnít grow their usual thick winter coats. The birds just didnít go as far south and the air didnít pick up a fall nip soon enough. There were other signs too, in the bark of the trees, the nesting habits of the animals and birds, the hair on the caterpillars. It was going to be a mild winter.
And it was. Some of the trees didnít turn much before Christmas. The Hermit spent Christmas Eve standing outside his cabin, staring at the late afternoon sky. Darkness fell and the sky was clear and he could see the constellations and the planets. There was Venus, silver bright in the blue-black sky, and Jupiter too, on one of its rare ventures as an evening star. They were like flares, marking the sinking sun. But it was warm and after a while the Hermit had to go in and take off his old, worn, jacket.
It was February before it really got cold and that was just a snap. The squirrels retreated into their trees and the birds bundled in their nests to wait it out. The Hermit understood the signs.
There was no snow, of course, and the Hermit expected none. So despite the cold, or maybe because of it, he was out in the woods one day conducting hermit-business, which is just as dull as any other business and about as pointless, but has a bit more actual purpose to it than most. Since he only ate vegetables Ė not out of any conviction but because he couldnít bring himself to eat any of the animals that lived nearby and had no way to buy food from anywhere else Ė there were no traps to tend.
His garden was near the cabin and plenty of nuts and berries grew close-by, even at this time of year. But he still had business to conduct and was out in the woods conducting it, which is why he witnessed the snow-storm.
Well, maybe ďsnow-stormĒ is a bit strong. It could better be described in less extravagant terms. The truth is, it could barely be described as a snow fall and certainly was not a flurry. It was actually one of those rare weather events for which there really is no proper name.
You see it was just a single snowflake.
It fell directly in front of the Hermit and settled to the ground in the middle of the path ahead of him. He stopped dead still and just stared. Heíd never seen the fall of just one snowflake before.
Already the weather was starting to break. He could tell it would be warm soon.
Then he gave way to an impulse. Hermits might well be the least impulsive of all Godís creatures, but even theyíre entitled to give way to at least one impulse during their lifetimes. This was his. The Hermit stooped down and picked the snowflake up.
Somehow he got it back to his cabin before it melted, too.
There was a cold cellar dug under the Hermitís cabin and that was where he took the snowflake. The cellar was kept cold by nearby underground springs that chilled the rocks that formed the cellarís floor and walls. It was a place to store vegetables and other perishables, or to chill milk before drinking it, when he could get milk. The Hermit placed the snowflake in the cellarís coldest corner.
The snowflake rested on a small ice-cold rock. Somehow it seemed grateful. That struck the Hermit as funny so he scowled at it as he did at most of the things that struck him as funny, or just friendly. Or both.
It wasnít much of a snowflake. In fact, it struck the Hermit as pretty ordinary. It had six points and on the whole rather looked like the pictures the Hermit remembered from his childhood. But it was the only snowflake he had seen this year, and if you judged by the fur on the caterpillars, there wouldnít be any others until next Winter.
The Hermit snorted at his own silliness and left the snowflake to its own thoughts while he went up to his cabin. He sat for a long time in his old cane bottom rocker, the only piece of real furniture he had. Since he liked to sleep on a straw mat on the floor near the pot-bellied stove. He sat smoking his pipe and reading, by candle light, his only book, Fendwetterís History of the Manufacture of Sextants and Marine Navigation Devices in New England. It was not the first time heíd read the book. It was a sort of old friend.
He read until the candle burned down then got ready for bed, which meant brushing his teeth and taking off his loggerís boots. But before he pulled back the burlap cover and crawled in to go to sleep, he went down to the cellar to check on the snowflake. Are snowflakes aware? Do they rest, much less sleep? Or are Hermits merely loose a few more screws than average?
Does it really matter?
It seemed to the Hermit that the snowflake was comfortable and resting for the night, so he went back upstairs and fell asleep.
The next few days the Hermit tried to ignore the snowflake, just looking in on it when he had to go down to the cellar to fetch carrots or lettuce or okra or the like. It seemed to be doing rather well and the Hermit got the feeling it was grateful. But that was too silly, so the Hermit told himself he imagined that part of it.
Only a few days later the Hermit noticed that spring was coming. It was starting to warm up. Birds were already hopping about, making their racket, while the squirrels were joyfully making pests of themselves. The Hermit scowled a lot at the trees.
It was still cold in the cellar where the icy underground springs chilled the walls and floor but soon spring would touch even the ground and the cellar could grow warmer. How much longer before the snowflake would melt? The Hermit wondered.
Not that he cared, understand. It was a curiosity, thatís all, the lone snowflake of the year. What did he care about some stupid snowflake he kept in a corner of his cellar? Nothing, thatís what.
Still he found himself spending more and more time in the cellar. He even took his old cane-bottomed rocker down there and sat for hours on end, rocking back and forth. He didnít bring his pipe, of course. He would have said he was afraid the smoke might get to the vegetables. If youíd asked him, he would have told you he was just down there to watch those vegetables Ė if he told you anything at all Ė to make sure they chilled properly and got good and crisp. But his chair was close to the snowflakeís corner and turned so that when his hermitís eyes got adjusted to the darkness he could watch it there on its rock.
But warm weather was coming and the snowflake couldnít last very much longer even there in the Hermitís cellar.
So one day the Hermit combed the tangles from his beard and changed his socks and knocked some of the dust off his old loggerís boots. Then he walked to the nearest town.
Now hermits do strange work, itís true, but they all seem to make-do. Maybe itís the overhead. A hermit owns his own home or else moves into one no one else wants. He doesnít throw expensive parties or make payments on big cars. His wardrobe doesnít have to impress anyone much except for bears and chipmunks, maybe. Perhaps that explains how the Hermit had the money to pay for what he wanted.
What he bought was an old generator and a fourth-hand refrigeration unit. He hired a truck to carry it back to his shack. He worked through the night setting up the generator in a lean-to next to his cabin. He ran wires down into the cellar and hooked the refrigeration unit up down there. He worked through the next day and a half before he got things working the way he wanted them to. He got to sleep only hours before sunrise.
He overslept. It was 5:47 AM when he roused himself and went outside for a look. The weather was warmer all right. Buds and sprouts were started on the trees and other plants. He went down to the cellar and found it comfortable, cold, and the snowflake basking in the artificial chill.
Somehow he kept that generator going through the spring and summer, though it was nip and tuck at times. Every week or ten days the generator would sputter and spit and the chunk-chunk sound would slow and become a sort of wheeze accompanied by sparks and hisses. The Hermit would get his tools and tamper and fidget with the thing and somehow tease it back to operation. At other times it was the refrigerator that balked and had to be cajoled into staying on. Neither, he knew, would last much longer but there was nothing he could do except fight them into continuing. Once a week he had to go down to the highway to a filling station to buy gas to operate the small generator for the next seven days.
But somehow he did it. The machines bitched and argued and promised to die out at any moment, but both of them lasted through spring and summer. In the cellar the snowflake remained on the cold rock and somehow didnít melt.
By September the signs of early winter were already there. The squirrels and rabbits were growing thick coats against the coming onslaught. The caterpillars were hairier than the Hermit could ever recall seeing them before. The birds all flew south and the sky was filling up with cold for the coming months. The Hermit spent a lot of time standing in front of the cabin and scowling at the sky.
By the middle of September the generator coughed its last. It didnít matter much because the week before something fell off the refrigerator, a part the Hermit couldnít figure out how to reattach. But that didnít matter much either, because the ground was already cold and the cellar was chilled enough by the underground springs.
A week later it snowed. And what a snow it was. The Hermit woke up just at dawn to find the morning covered with a late afternoon sky. The air was spotted with fat, white flakes that drifted toward a carpet of cottony snow that covered the ground as far as the Hermit could see. The trees were decked out in capes and shawls of the stuff.
The Hermit scowled at the world. He felt a cold chill but it wasnít from the snow. It was funny, that chill, because it started somewhere inside him Ė he thought it was the pit of his stomach but he couldnít be sure Ė and just grew, a knot of cold that somehow didnít have a lot to do with the wintry chill that was everywhere else. He went down into his cellar and sat down in the old cane bottom rocker near the lone snowflake. He sat there and rocked for a time and talked, talked as he had gotten into the habit of doing these last few months, to the snowflake. It never answered but he had the silly feeling it listened.
But there are things that can only be put off so long, and hermits have a deeper sense of responsibility about such things than you might suspect. Toward the end of the day, the Hermit gathered the snowflake into his hands and took it to the cellar door that opened to the outside and held it up so it could see. The snow had stopped falling but it was inches deep on the ground and the sky was already pregnant with another snowfall.
The Hermit took the snowflake out into the yard and then the woods, and across two or three hills before setting it down. The air had the cold, crisp feel of winter to it and the Hermit could feel the bite of it on his nose and cheeks, where the icy air touched him.
He turned to leave but only went a single step before something made him turn and look back. The snowflake lay on top of the others and, oddly, seemed somewhat different from them. After a time the Hermit looked up at the sky and decided it would start snowing again pretty soon and he should be getting back home. He couldnít think of anything to say, so he just nodded, waved his hand a bit, and turned away and went back to his shack. He thought maybe he was going to come down with a cold, so he went to bed early that night.
He didnít catch cold. He went the whole winter without coming down with so much as a sniffle.
And thatís the story, except for the part that some people say never really happened. Only the Hermit truly knows, I guess.
The next year it snowed early and the Hermit spent that day and night bundled up warmly in soft blankets inside his cabin, scowling at the walls and reading some of his favorite passages from History of the Manufacture of Sextants and Marine Navigation Devices in New England. But next morning he went out to look around.
Now, like I said, a lot of people doubt this part, but this is how the story goes: Itís said the Hermit saw the snowflake lying on the surface of the snow. The snow around it was disturbed as if the snowflake might have gone to some effort to push itself up where it could be seen.
As nearly as could be told, it was the same snowflake. That is, it was identical to the one that had fallen two years ago and, as everyone knows, no two snowflakes are just alike. And if anyone ever knew a snowflake, the Hermit knew that snowflake.
Maybe it was that there were just so many snowflakes and the same ones fall year in and year out, or at least for as many as they are able. That could explain it. Or maybe this snowflake was just special.
People, still talking, say that every year since, with the first snow one snowflake pushes itself up to the top of the snow in the yard close to the Hermitís old shack. And some people insist that this is the same snowflake that fell by itself one year, and which the Hermit befriended.
But they also say a thing I canít quite accept.
They say the Hermit moves his old cane bottom rocker outside and sits where he can see the snowflake. That part I do believe, of course; I believe it if I believe any of this.
But not the rest. They say the Hermit smiles a lot. That just canít be. I say the Hermit scowls.
Thatís just how hermits are. But it all comes down to the same thing.