Charlie used to run around the yard counting snowflakes. He was five then. I was twelve. He used to tell me there were nineteen because that’s all the higher he could count. When I told him Grandad was sixty-eight he thought the old man had lived forever. He used to ask him what the beginning looked like and Grandad told him it was white like the front yard and full of life. Charlie looked at him funny and said “There’s nuffin living out there!”
So Grandad went out to the front yard with Charlie dangling by the hand, like the mittens on his coat sleeves. He took a small spade and cleared away a patch of the first snow of Winter, then dug up some dirt from the still soft ground and put it in the clay pot I had made for him in art class. He took Charlie to the garden store to gather a handful of life and returned with a packet of holly seeds. Grandad took the packet from his pocket and tore off the top and sprinkled a couple in Charlie’s hand and guided him toward the hole. Charlie sprinkled the seeds in the hole then I, peeking through the living room blinds, ran out with the pot and Grandad watched smiling as I covered the hole with the freshly dug dirt. His eyes twinkled as me and Charlie started stomping down the dirt then broke into a laugh as I tackled Charlie into the snow and he threw snow past my bare neck down my back, because I was too cool for coats. We ran laughing as Grandad chased us back into the house to the comfort of the fire. I sat until I thought my sweater would catch fire and noted how much Charlie looked like Grandad, and wondered at the depth of our family tree and tried to imagine Grandad’s Grandad, and his Grandad, all the way back to the first Grandad, but it was just the hazy outline of a smiling face, counting snowflakes from a cave. I picked Charlie up, asleep on the couch, and kissed Grandad on the forehead, dozing in the red armchair, and tucked Charlie in before collapsing on my bed in my clothes. The frost crept in from the sides of the window and I looked through the mists of my perception and counted snowflakes. I could count higher than Charlie, but fell asleep before I got to sixty-eight.
Charlie got a microscope for Christmas. It wasn’t much, a little thing with a couple slides that magnified objects up to three times their normal size, whatever normal sizes are. The first thing he did was run outside to count snowflakes. Grandad followed him and showed him how to collect a single flake from his mittens and gently place it on the slide. Charlie gasped as he looked through the lens. He glanced up at me and begged me to take a look but by the time my eye met the scope it was gone.
“What do you mean it’s gone?” Charlie howled and looked to find a refracted puddle of water on his slide. He looked to Grandad with tears in his eyes but Grandad only smiled and said to count the snowflakes. Charlie looked around and started to count but got to nineteen and howled in frustration. Grandad watched him with a sad smile on his face then plucked a snowflake from my long curly hair and placed it on the slide. Charlie looked with disgruntled apprehension then jumped up and turned to me and said, “It’s different!” but by the time I got my eye to the eyepiece it was gone. Grandad watched my face fall but didn’t say anything.
After dinner Grandad led me outside with the light from the dying sun casting purple shadows across our carefully built snowman. I told him I was cold and cast a jealous eye to the bay window where Charlie was playing next to the fire and the family drank red wine and port. He led me past the snow-draped maples to the spot where weeks before we planted some holly seeds and showed me the tiny red buds peeping up through the layer of white.
“Grandad I’m cold,” I whined, but he hugged me close and I could smell the cigar smoke on his jacket.
“The world doesn’t stay white, Rosebud,” he said, and I held back a sigh and said, “I know Grandad.” He had more to say but was never great with words so just coughed in my hair. I told him I was cold and we went inside.
Charlie grew up a little and mastered the little microscope but Grandad died before he could count to sixty-eight. Later that winter I stole Charlie’s microscope from his closet and looked at half a dozen snowflakes before my tears fogged up the lens. I was shaking from the cold as the sun kissed the horizon and I looked up at the blurry outline of the holly bush in the front lawn and thought how the world spun too slowly, how people passed too quickly from view. The snow undulated in the wind like patches of birds as winds whipped flakes about in gales of tiny moments of beauty; it was as if each flake held a little of Grandad and were being scattered just outside my reach, and if I could just gather them all together, and piece them together like a puzzle, I could bring him back. I wiped my nose with the back of my sleeve and tried to grab a single snowflake from the ground but my fingers were cold and clumsy and shaking, and as I looked through the eyepiece they were all jumbled together and broken in a mess of crystalline patterns. There was no order, I thought, and wept softly to myself as even the broken and cripples disappeared before my eyes. I heard Grandad’s voice in the wind, telling me all were beautiful, and I wept for all the ones that were melting out there, the ones I would never get to see. I sobbed until I heard the garage door open and quickly swallowed my pain and hugged my knees to my chest to stop the tremors as tiny footsteps padded my way. Charlie stumbled from his sleep and started to ask what I was doing until he saw his microscope on the ground in front of me.
“What are you doing that’s mine!” he squealed. I tried to explain that some things in this world need to be shared, like microscopes and feelings and Grandads and snowflakes, but he cried that I was going to break it and that Grandad got it for him. There was a little skirmish before I told him this isn’t what Grandad would want and started crying and he didn’t know what to do except wrap his little arms around my head. My tears froze in his hair to join the accumulating snow and he broke away and grabbed a snowflake with practiced care and placed it on the slide before scooting it towards my crossed legs. I looked, because he was trying to console me. I looked because every time it’s different.
“You know he’s not really gone,” Charlie said as I looked through the lens.
“Shut up Charlie, he is too.”
“Nu-uh, I talked to him last night.”
“You were just dreaming.”
“Nu-uh, I was sitting up in bed watching the snow and I heard his voice. He tolds me to keep counting. Guess what? I counted to thirty of them!” And Charlie proceeded to show me his new ability to count to thirty. I smiled in spite of myself. “And he tolds me to keep counting so I’m gonna do that. And he tolds me somewhere there’s a perfect snowflake, and if I find it it’ll be just like the beginning.”
We sat in silence for a while, watching the snow fall until Charlie felt sleepy. I took him inside and tucked him in, but I wasn’t sleepy so went back outside and stood in the yard next to the holly bush and looked up at the sky at the falling snow. The flakes were big and beautiful and I counted because I didn’t want to think about the other stuff. Soon the wind picked up and the snow whipped around me and I lost track of my numbers. I noticed if I looked in the distance it was all a blur, like static on our television set, and the snowflakes became an ambiguous storm. I thought of all the people in the world and why it had to have been Grandad to go. “It isn’t fair!” I threw my protest at the storm but it howled back at me. There were billions of people whipping around me and I couldn’t keep track and wanted them all to share my pain because one billionth of this sadness had to be better than the whole thing. I had the radical idea to spread all the world’s sadness equally across all the world’s people and then we wouldn’t be so sad, or at least we’d all be sad together. There was no one with me out in the yard. There was no one consoling or crying with me, no one coughing in my hair. In a cyclical loop I knew Grandad would know what to do to make me feel better, and I willed him to speak through the wind, like he did with Charlie, but the snow stung my cheeks and laughed in my face. I thought of perfect snowflakes and wondered how any of us could find amongst these billions perfection. At a loss for what to do and feeling desperate, I tried to emulate the microscope and zoomed in, closer to my self and closer to my heart like human eyes can do, and saw individual flakes in the ambiguous storm, whizzing by my face to rest at last on my eyelashes and mittens and the blanket of white. With fresh eyes I saw a beauty beyond the snowflake; all those little portraits of Nature herself rested together at last in the whiteness of our front yard, like thoughts on the mind. I lay down next to the holly bush, in the cold and my tears and my sweet adolescence, and felt Grandad shower down upon me. It is a puzzle after all, I thought, but knew I couldn’t piece anything together; wherever they landed, a masterpiece was born. I knew the snow’s indifference but was buoyed by the knowledge that I was surrounded by a radiant mosaic, and knew I was just one of the tiles. I wondered if there were other girls lying in snow on the other side of the world, searching for Grandad’s amongst the storms, and they all seemed imperfect, incomplete, but beautiful. The ground was cold. I zoomed in a little more to look within myself and saw Grandad inside me, and his Grandad in him, and looked down that hallway of mirrors to the beginning of time, a brilliant white, then zoomed out and watched the snow fall from somewhere indeterminate. As my brain began to tingle from the evanescent glory that connected me to girls and boys across the world and time, it all stopped, the pain the tears the snow, and I was left with my breath wafting slowly towards the heavens. The night was cold. I felt beautiful.