“White Easter” is not an expression you hear often, but we had one this year and the papers were full of it. Snow during Christmas is magical, but by Easter, at the end of March, you’d rather see stalks of freesias or lilacs and hear skylarks and robins. We were at a holiday cottage near the Austrian border, not far from Salzburg, with two other families, and the weather had kept us mostly indoors. On Easter Sunday my wife snapped a picture from the bedroom window, a frame with cottages and cars and pylons and pine-forested slopes all hooded by snow, and posted it on Facebook with the caption “Merry Christmas!” Later that morning, after the terrace and the garden thawed out, the kids set out on the traditional Easter egg hunt. Despite all the snow our Easter Hare had been generous, and soon bawling children turned into smiling ones, each one clutching his or her basket brimming with colourful eggs and shiny chocolates. By afternoon they had exhausted all options of playing with their new collections, and the adults were under pressure again to supply new forms of entertainment. N, who had turned six the previous month, wished to go on a walk in the woods. His father was feeling unwell, I was looking forward to a hike, so N and I decided to go together.
When we left, N’s mother photographed us standing in the driveway, covered head to toe in winter wear. N stood smiling beneath his red woolen cap, blue hooded ski-jacket, black snow pants, and Jack Wolfskin boots. I stood beside him in a black woolen coat, blue jeans, a grey cap and a striped scarf. Light snow was falling, and in my left hand was an umbrella, blue and white and unopened.
The cottage stood at the foot of a mountain, and not far from it was a path that led into the wooded slope. The path seemed accessible from the garden, so we agreed to take this shortcut. But we slipped on our first attempt: the slope from the garden to this path was covered with fresh snow.
“Shortcuts don’t always work,” I said, trying to squeeze a moral out of the false start. “Let’s take the normal way up.”
“Okay,” said N.
Soon we were trudging along a narrow slushy path that cut through the incline. Above and below us were trees, bare beeches and the occasional pine or spruce. Patches of fresh snow clung to the slopes.
“Will we see animals in the woods?” N asked.
“Not sure. If we go deep inside, we may. But this path seems to be going only along the edge of the mountain.”
“Deep inside – is that where the hunters go?”
“When we had gone to the woods from the Kindergarten, we saw a lot of deers.”
“Did you see hunters too?”
“No, hunters are only for dangerous animals.”
“Do you know what’s the most dangerous animal?” I asked.
“Not at all. Let me tell you: Man is the most dangerous animal. That hunter, the man with the gun, he can kill all other animals in the forest. So he is the most dangerous, you see?”
“No, no.” N protested.
“You know those deers with horns, when a deer with horns comes to attack, even the hunter will run.”
“Are you sure?”
“Another time when we had gone to the woods from Kindergarten we saw a dead deer.”
“Did the hunter kill it?”
“No, it had just died.”
“From old age, maybe.”
“Yes. But there was also another small baby deer which had died. And it had a hole in it.”
“A hole? Did the hunter shoot this baby deer?”
“No. But our teacher told us that through this hole they had taken out all the food.”
“You mean the meat?”
We arrived at a small stone bridge across a tiny waterfall. Water cascaded over fallen logs and scattered rocks.
“Where does the water come from?”
“From the top of the mountain. When the snow there melts, it comes down as a waterfall.”
He pointed to some yellow flowers – probably celandine – poking out of the snow. “Frühling is coming!”
I smiled. “Yes! Spring will soon be here!”
The path grew narrower around a bend, and I suggested he walk in front of me. At first he was hesitant to let go of my hand, but he agreed when he saw that walking side by side would be difficult.
“Why don’t they build a fence on the edge?” he asked.
I had to think. “Maybe they don’t have the money to build a fence.”
The woods grew dense. Some trees had fallen over, creating a criss-cross pattern of trunks, like a bunch of matchsticks careless thrown over. He pointed to one cluster and said, “Mikado!” This was the game he’d been playing the last two days, picking up fallen sticks, and he connected the two instantly.
I showed him moss growing on the trees, pointing out that only one side was green. “Moss grows only on the north side.” I said.
From this point on he looked closely at the trees we crossed, all of which revealed this pattern. He then found one without a trace of moss. “Look!” he said, “that tree has no moss!”
“Yes!” I braced myself for a question I had no answer for. But N had other ideas.
“That’s a wishing tree!”
“A wishing tree, yes!” I said, with relief. I should have asked what wish he would submit to the tree, but this occurred to me only later.
Ahead, at the end of another curve, a small wooden gate stood as a marker. Two feet wide and a feet tall, it was like a gate into a hobbit’s garden. I could have stepped over it carrying N, but he thought we should turn back. Beyond the gate there was a cottage, partially obscured by a grove of pines.
“That’s where the witch lives.”
“How do you know?” We had started walking back.
“And what does the witch do?”
“If she catches us she will make us eat a lot.”
“If she catches me I will hit her with my umbrella!” I waved the blue and white wand, impersonating a brave warrior. N was not impressed.
“The witch will turn you into something small,” he said. “Then you can’t do anything to her.”
“And what will she do to you? What does she do to little boys.” My mind was on the classic story by Roald Dahl, ‘The Witches,’ and I wondered if he knew of it. In the story, witches come in the shape of normal-looking women, carry away little boys and turn them into mice and other creatures. But N’s witches were different.
“The witch will make little boys eat and eat, and then the boys will burst. Then she will put them back together.”
“Are you sure?”
“Who told you this? Did your mama or papa tell you this story?”
“No, no one told me. I just know it.”
“How can you just know it? You must have read it somewhere, or seen it on TV.”
“No, I just know it.”
“Everyone learns things from somewhere, N. You can’t just know it – tell me, where did you learn about it.” I wanted to push him a bit, challenge his view, just to see where this would lead to. His answer, which came in a flash, surprised and delighted me.
“I know it because I saw it in a dream.”
It was his way of ending this verbal duel without giving up his original position: he hadn’t learned it from someone else or something outside, it had in fact come from within!
The walk back to the cottage seemed faster. The snowfall was heavier now. N pointed to his feet.
“My Jack Wolfskin boots are wasserdicht.”
“You mean water-proof?”
“Yes. There are no Jack Wolfskin shops here,” he added. “I only see restaurants and hotels and fuel stations.”
I smiled and nodded. I asked him if he knew why snow fell to earth and did not hang in the air. Or tree leaves, for that matter. Or anything you drop from your hand.
“Sometimes it doesn’t fall down,” he said.
“What do you mean? If you throw things in the air, it always falls down – it doesn’t hang in the air, does it?”
“It can get stuck in a tree.”
“Ah yes, it can. But if it doesn’t then it comes down to ground. That’s because of gravity.”
“That’s right. The Earth is powerful and it pulls everything back to it, and this is what we call Gravity.”
He nodded, as if assimilating the information for another day. At least, that was my hope. Back at the cottage, we undid our layers and thanked each other for the nice walk. And we agreed we should do it again.
* * *
In a short essay titled ‘To be Happy,’ Orhan Pamuk writes about times he is happiest.
When I go to the seaside with my four-year-old daughter, Ruya, I become the happiest man in the world. What does the happiest man in the world want most? He wants, of course, to carry on being the happiest man in the world. This is why he knows how important it is to do the same things every time. And that’s what we do, always the same things.
He goes on the describe the details of a seaside visit with this daughter. Those moments, the small details of their trip – the things they carry, what they do, what they say to each other, the laughter and the playfulness – are described in a manner that leaves you both happy and sad: the happiness of a fond memory, the sadness of its transience.
I was happy beyond measure during my walk with N, and this happiness made me wish we could repeat the walk again and again and again. I do not know how often this can happen, which is perhaps why I (and I suspect Orhan Pamuk) chose to write about it. If Pamuk, the happiest man with his daughter on a seaside trip, cannot repeat that visit forever, he can reread his description of it and recall, through its tiny details, how it felt to be so happy. So can I.