She trudged slowly and half-heartedly through the last of the winter snow, heading north, back into the mountains for the winter. Night retreated from the rising sun as she lost the cover of darkness and raised a middle finger to the shimmering orb of red and gold that was rising over the horizon. Her footsteps in the snow were quickly erased by cold wind which would not save her from the inevitable orbit of the Earth moving closer to the hateful sun.
She’d had the best of winters; meeting seasonal friends down in the valley. She’d shared walks with them dressed in their warmest clothes while she walked simply wearing a warm smile. Her pallid surface contrasted their bright winter clothes. Her watery blue eyes glimmered with joy when she saw the youngsters playing and remembered all the years before. There weren’t many like her left, not in that region anyway and she would never leave her home.
Looking down over the valley she saw the world of old, moving forwards like a stop-motion set each time she came down from the mountain. Once she’d had a name of her own, given to her by family but they were long gone and so was her memory of the word they’d called her by. The change had been gradual once, a few new houses, extensions or replanted gardens, no longer. Entire streets stared to spring up between her visits and the village became a small town which crawled ever closer to her winter hideaway. She didn’t much approve of the newest additions to her valley, they were too rushed; there was no love of design in them.
The warm air hit her with a rush and she felt the sickness; dehydration had begun. A water droplet ran down her pale greyish-blue arm, slowly and tentatively at first but gaining speed and confidence. She raised her hand gently to watch it grow at the end of her small finger before falling into the snow at her feet.
Moving as fast as she could, which was not very fast at all, she made for the shade of a tall pine. The conifers marked her path to the deep dark cave where she would spend the summer. She would spend the warm seasons there, sleeping if she could to pass the time. Her kind had done the same for endless millennia, watching the progress of the humans in their valleys. As the ages had passed their numbers had risen as those of her kind melted away. She told herself they’d moved to other valleys but she knew that many had given themselves to the sun as she sometimes thought to.
There was always a slim chance that her kind would be reborn in the cold of a deep winter but it had not been so since the last ice-age. Even when they did return it was reincarnation more than renewal, they were not the same friends she’d mourned for; they were strangers of the same visage.
Her feet felt heavy as she climbed the mountain, the light chasing her as the shadows retreated ever further. It was not her energy that failed her but the will to continue the fight against the celestial order. She stopped; waiting for the burning pain and the sickness. It was not long before the sun abandoned her and she felt the warmth of the rising disk of light. She no longer felt sick; she was resolute that she would face the end there.
Beads of melt-water began to form then dribble down her. Her worried went with each droplet; they would matter no more. As she melted she became almost transparent like a statue made of glass. The young boy would remember that sight for the rest of his life, years later as a heart attack took him in a hospital bed that image would snap back into his head; his final thought.
He watched for almost a minute, wondering why she would stand there in the sun, then the realisation hit him and he panicked, running down the hill with his sledge dragging along behind.
“Please don’t die here.” He shouted, startling her. She turned to see him in his multi-coloured waterproof winter wear and shrugged. Why would she wait for another painful year? Why should she sleep to return and mourn the changes which came naturally?
She was the last of them that he knew of, there were black and white photos of others that he’d seen but they were worn and yellowing where they weren’t sepia toned to begin with. Everyone knew her or of her and told the stories of their childhood with fond smiles but all the same it seemed the consensus that she was a companion for the young who cared nothing for conversation. She was beautiful, eternal and moved with grace but an air of naivety. Her face had no mouth to voice her thoughts so instead used sign language in which the natives of the town were more versed than the country as a whole.
He watched her hands move as she stood dripping; I’m done, let me go. He shook his head as she fainted and fell in a puddle before him. After a minute’s blind panic he gently lifted her onto his cheap plastic sledge and kicked the melting snow over her before hauling the heavy load uphill. He moved as fast as he could until he was dripping with sweat. He knew the cave where the elemental slumbered over the winter. The cave went deep into the mountain above the snowline, past the warning signs left by mountain rescue teams after accidents he’d been lectured about.
She didn’t know what she meant to the boy. She couldn’t understand the wonder she inspired in such a boring world. Science had conquered so many once magical unknowns but she as an elemental remained to counter the cynicism of maturity. He couldn’t let her die so he sat with her there in the freezing cave. The sweat of his exertion caused him to shiver so much his teeth chattered but his determination to stay with the slumbering elemental never wavered for a moment. He indulged his imagination, wishing he was an elemental himself who could stay with her through the summer to accompany her down the mountain the following winter. She always had a smile, even without a mouth it was clearly carved into her gorgeous, glassy features.
He knew she was lonely, she reminded him of the single mothers who watched his parents jealously at the school gates. He felt like that sometimes; alone even amongst the millions of his own kind, he was a loner who had yet to come to terms with the fact. Despite knowing it would make him colder and her warmer still he lay down and held her as she slept. It was cold but he settled into sleep as the warmth so quickly draining from his ear warmed the cold, damp fleece of his hood.
While he slept the frosted glaze of her complexion returned despite the heat he was radiating behind her. The boys’ complexion had changed in a far less healthy manner while they slept; he’d turned purple and was going blue.
She woke and stretched, feeling the ache of her dehydration but less demoralised; at terms with her state until she saw the young boy freezing to death on the ground next to her. It was dark by that point, the light from the moon barely illuminating the deep recess of the cave. She moved as quickly as she could, emptying the snow out of the red sledge and sliding the limp form of the child onto it.
Staring down the mountain she considered her options; she could not simply let the boy slide down the hill in the hope that he would be found and hit nothing on the way down. If she ventured down with him she would not make it back up the mountain before the light of the sunrise but had to ensure his safety for the sake of her own conscience. She sat the boy on her lap and paddled down the mountain, steering and slowing the pace of the sledge as best she could.
In no time at all they were at the foot of the mountain, just a mile from the city’s edge. She settled the boy on the sledge and walked as fast as she could towards the nearest bright lights of the town. There were voices in the dark, frantic calls of fearful townsfolk searching for the lost child. As she walked further into the light of town they surrounded her and wrapped the boy in jackets and blankets. While he was rushed away to hospital they all thanked her and smiled and cheered. She smiled while she thought of the young boy but looked back to the mountaintop and knew that there was no chance of her making it back there by daybreak. They all asked her why she didn’t look happier for saving the child and she wrote her dilemma in the snow. While most were stumped for a solution to the problem one woman told them all that the boy’s father ran a fish packing factory with a walk in freezer. They were all sure that for saving his child the man would let her stay in the freezer for as long as she needed to.
The father was more than happy to let the immortal elemental sleep in his clod store where she spent days recovering like the boy in the warmth of the nearest hospital. He was resilient but took longer to heal than her. It was a long while after she’d started pacing between the crates of seafood when the boy was allowed home to be nurtured by his parents. The father visited her every morning and thanked her despite her explanation that she owed the boy more than he owed her.
Eventually she saw the boy again, dressed like an Inuit from head to toe more so than when they’d met. He’d asked to help his father in the factory so he could talk to her again just as she talked to most of the workers during their break. The boy might not have taken on the business had it not been for her but their friendship meant they saw each other every day for many years. She slept when the humans slept and helped them when she could, grateful for the company and the conversation.