The summer day had reached sweltering temperatures, caused by a hot air mass that had blown over the Mediterranean from Africa and made its way to the Balkans. I mopped my brow while you took another swig of water.
“We’re getting low,” you said. “We need to find a stream.”
“There should be one in the valley.”
We had passed through a nearly-deserted town in Serbia, then hiked through a forest and across a meadow, keeping off the roads to avoid any chance of discovery, while heading toward a valley that led to a path over the hills.
A sudden chill made us pause, wary of its source. At first we thought it was a cool breeze bringing welcome relief from the heat. But it was no breeze. The chill hugged the ground like part of the landscape, numbing our ankles and wrapping itself around our legs.
“Why is it so cold?” you asked. “We didn’t expect this.”
“Some of these wildflowers look like they’re wilting.” I reached down to feel the tops of the stalks. A frozen blade of grass snapped off in my fingers. “This isn’t right.”
We continued past the edge of the meadow and through a stand of oaks, beyond which was the lower end of the valley. As soon as we came out of the trees, we saw the problem.
Instead of a carpet of grass and flowers, the wide vale was covered by a massive field of snow more than a meter deep. It stretched the length of the valley — the way we were heading — and lay there contentedly ignoring the summer heat. Not one bead of sweat glistened on its edges, no water trickled from under its prostrate form. It breathed a sigh that made us rub our hands together and wish for heavy coats.
“This should be a lovely green valley with a stream running down the middle of it.” I was imagining an ideal bucolic scene — a few deer quietly grazing, dragonflies and bees humming and buzzing over the grass, birds flitting about, the fragrance of wildflowers carried on a mild breeze. “All we get is snow? Has it no respect for the seasons?”
“This is unacceptable,” you said. “It should have left months ago.”
Even snow patches that linger in shadows on the highest peaks had long since packed up and flowed downstream. Now here we were in late August being assailed by a chill that swept over the valley and nipped at our faces.
“If we have to hike around it,” you said, “we won’t reach the path until after dark.” Our shoes weren’t fit for walking over so much snow, since we were dressed for summer.
“You think it’s being rebellious? Or maybe just lazy?”
“Let’s find out. I bet we can do something.” You always think we can do something. Unfortunately, you’re usually right.
We stepped up to the snowfield, which was facing downhill. Its front end — that is, its snout — came to a rounded edge about chest high. It formed a barrier that extended across the valley floor, to where trees huddled on the steep hills.
“Do you really have to cover the entire valley?” you asked it.
I put a foot up on the snowbank and leaned into it. “Look, who do you think you are to still be lounging about here?” I reached out and whacked it, to make sure I had its attention. “You should have been long gone by now.”
The snowfield shuffled a bit and made a groaning noise. It didn’t seem to like my tone, but too bad.
“It’s annoyed,” you said.
“Well so am I.”
“Let’s try a different approach.”
You were about to say more, but a rumbling from up the valley caught our attention. The sound grew into a low roar and a wind ruffled our hair. Almost immediately we both realized what was happening.
We had nowhere to run. Any second now, a churning mass of snow and ice would come hurtling down and crush us. We weren’t prepared for this, not in the middle of summer. I didn’t think the snowfield would get so worked up as to try to kill us, and was almost sorry I had knocked it on the snout, but the beastly thing deserved it.
We barely had time to turn our backs and crouch down before we felt clumps of snow hitting our bodies. I took a quick look at you, thinking it might be for the last time. You seemed to be concentrating, like you were doing calculations in your head, and didn’t even bother glancing my way.
Snow swept over us and whooshed past. I felt an icy sting on my neck and closed my eyes. Then, silence. The assault was over.
You stood up and casually brushed the snow off. There was scarcely enough around our feet to make half a snowman. I was still a bit shaken, but followed your example.
“It wasn’t steep enough,” you said. That’s what you had been figuring out — it’s impossible to create much of an avalanche in such a shallow valley.
We turned back to address the snowfield. “Nice try,” I said.
You put a hand on my arm. “Let’s see what it has to say.”
“Okay, what’s the deal?” I could have worded that more politely, but was still angry at it for the avalanche attempt and for just being there. “Why are you still covering up this valley when everyone else of your kind melted away in the spring?”
“It’s just that by staying here you upset the natural cycles, so we’d like to understand why.” You have a nicer way of putting things.
More grumbling and shuffling, after which the snowfield insisted that it believed in the right to equal opportunity, twenty days paid vacation, and a decent pension.
Okay, we agreed, we couldn’t argue with that in principle, but one has to respect the ways of nature and the laws of physics. It was going against the cultural norms — and how could it stand this heat?
Very well, thank you, because what if it wanted to be a glacier?
No, we replied, that requires special skills and decades of training. “Besides,” I added, “glaciers are out of fashion these days.”
Again, no. “You’re a long way from the North Sea.”
But speaking of seas, we said, it could flow down to the Black Sea by way of the Danube — I hummed a bit of that waltz by Strauss — and spend a little time at the seaside, but only as water, since massive frozen entities are disallowed on the beach, along with dogs and motorized vehicles.
No, it replied, the beaches are open to any form of natural being, dogs excluded, and if a snowfield chose to set up a blanket and folding chair and enjoy a bit of sun and sea, why, that was no one’s business.
What if, I hypothesized, some vendor on the beach noticed the snowfield and decided to offer shaved ice and slushy drinks to his customers? How would it feel about being scooped up by the cupful, drenched in sticky, artificially-flavored syrup, and licked into oblivion by slobbering children?
That sent shivers up its spine. I had made my point.
“I bet it’s afraid of melting,” you said in my ear. “It thinks it will die.”
You leaned toward the snow and lowered your voice, as if about to reveal a great secret. “Let me tell how you will live forever,” you began, then launched into The Mysterious Wonders of The Hydrologic Cycle, as you called it — a title chosen to hook the curious listener.
You spoke of rivers and streams, oceans and lakes, mists and fog, ice and snow. You made a sweeping arc with your hand as you described how water, graced with energy from the sun, is taken up in the rapture of evaporation, purified by heat to leave behind earthly contamination, transcendent in atmospheric glory, swirling in a realm high above the mountain tops, then re-embodied in flawless raindrops and unique snowflakes, returning gently to the land to continue the never-ending flow from earth to sky and back again, everlasting, never dying, only changing in form, solid to liquid to vapor, taking on an infinite number of shapes as it journeys through the endless cycle of water-life.
You pointed at the sky. “See those puffy white clouds up there? That could be you, freely floating, seeing the world, making new friends. The sooner you flow down to the sea, the sooner you’ll be up there, maybe riding the jet stream, mixing with high society.”
After listening to you, I was ready to melt and flow down the river myself. Who can resist being part of something as grand and awe-inspiring as the water cycle?
The snowfield was quiet, apparently deep in thought. Then we saw its surface glisten with drops in the afternoon sun. A trickle of snowmelt began to run from under its front edge and into the dry streambed. You nodded, satisfied.
“Well,” I said, “at least we can fill our water bottles now.”