Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Snowflake

a short story by Bill Adler


“Daddy’s back!” Isabel bent her knees to dash to the door, but Angeline pinched the back of her pink and white striped dress, holding her in place.

“Don’t run, sweetie. You’ll broil. That’s not good for you.”

Photo by Mark Lim
“Okay, Mommy.” Isabel walked in exaggerated slow motion, lifting her feet high and moving her arms like a windmill. She began panting as she got close to the apartment’s front door, through which her father’s red face peeked. From the living room, Angeline could see rivulets of sweat running down Isabel’s neck. The back of her dress looked like a sponge; her long, black hair clung damply to her skin.

Angeline had tried to cut Isabel’s hair multiple times, but each time Isabel protested, “I like my hair! I like my hair!” Even though short hair would be far more comfortable, Angeline let Isabel have her way. There were few pleasures a little girl could enjoy, with fewer to come.

In a single, fluid motion, like a performer at Cirque du Soleil, Samuel rested his carry-on bag on the marble floor and scooped up Isabel. “How’s my little girl? I missed you.”

Isabel clasped her hands around Samuel’s back and wrapped her legs around his waist. “I’m hot, Daddy. It’s been terribly hot. You’re hot, too, but I want you to hold me. ’K?”

“I missed you, sweet pea. I’m glad I’m home.”

Angeline wiped her forehead with a cotton cloth as she enjoyed the reunion of father and daughter. “I’m sorry, Samuel.” She remained seated on the sofa, leaning forward so her back didn’t touch the leather. She picked up a white paper fan adorned with cranes and fanned her face. “I’m sorry, babe. They just cycled off the power. No electric fans for another” — she glanced at her watch — “six hours.”

“I know. I walked up.” Clutching Isabel with one arm, Samuel wiped his forehead with the back of his other hand. He could probably have released Isabel and she wouldn’t have fallen; his shirt and Isabel’s dress were glued together with an amalgam of salty sweat and cotton fibers. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his paper fan, pale blue with a white Merlion in the middle, snapped it open, and fanned his and Isabel’s heads. He chuckled. “It seemed like such a good idea at the time to get an apartment on the thirty-seventh floor.”

“Ooo, a breeze,” Isabel said. “You’re the best fanner, Daddy.” Isabel turned her head. “And Mommy, too. You’re both the best fanners in the world!”

Isabel raised her arms, a signal she wanted to be released. She sat on the floor. Samuel sat beside her and continued to fan her.

“Can I have ice water?” Isabel asked.

“There’s no ice, sweetie. Mommy’s sorry.” Angeline was glad Isabel couldn’t see where her sweat ended and tears began. “I can bring you a regular water. I’ll get you a glass to drink and drizzle water on your head and then wave my fan real hard to cool you.”

“’K.” Isabel stretched her legs out on the floor, spread them, and spread her arms. She turned her head toward Samuel. “Do you have to go back to Japan? I don’t want you to go. I missed you.”

“No, sweet pea. I don’t have to go to Japan again. In fact, I caught the very last flight back to Singapore. After today there are no more flights.”

“No Disneyworld?”

Photo by Tim Gleason
“No anywhere. It’s become too hot for planes to fly.”

“Will I go back to school?”

“Maybe, sweetie. Maybe you can,” Samuel said. He pushed the wettest parts of Isabel’s hair away from her face and fanned her faster.

Angeline slid to the edge of the couch. In a low voice, she asked, “Did you get it?”

Samuel lowered his voice, too. “Yes.” He held out his wrist.

Angeline stood slowly and walked to the front hall, sweat trailing her. She sat next to Samuel and Isabel and put her fingertips on the watch’s crystal. Even though the watch existed in the same awful place as the three of them, it felt cool. “A Snowflake?”

“It is.”

“How did you find it? How did you manage—”

Samuel put his finger on Angeline’s cracked lips. “It doesn’t matter how. We have one, that’s all that matters.”

“A Grand Seiko Snowflake.” Angeline cocked her head to the side so she could get a better view of the watch’s snowfield dial. Never in her life had she wanted to run barefoot through the snow, but in this moment, she daydreamed the soles of her feet were being tickled by cold, feathery flakes. Snow appeared to drift across the watch’s dial as if blown by a north wind. Angeline imagined how delicious crisp air tasted. 

Samuel nodded.

“Did you find a priest? Did you have the watch blessed at a temple?” Angeline shook her head. “I still don't understand how this will work.”

“Does it matter?”

“I want to know. It’s our family and it matters.” Angeline squeezed Samuel’s hand, pursed her lips, and cocked her head to the side. The sweat between them locked their hands together.


*****

Samuel followed the path of rumors from Singapore to Tokyo. He had stitched together message fragments from forums, message boards, and the dark web, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Clues were often as wrong as they were right. Sometimes the pieces of information fit together perfectly; sometimes they felt like splinters.

The clues led to an antique watch shop in Ueno, Tokyo. Everywhere was hot, Samuel thought, but he half expected Miyazaki’s Watch Shop to be the last oasis of cool on the planet. The clues spoke to a promise of escape, of a technology that Samuel could bring back home to keep his family comfortable — and alive. Samuel fell to his knees in despair, dust swirling around him. Shelves of old watches covered the store’s far side. Inside the cracked glass case at the front of the store were as many watch parts as there were watches. The smell of mold filled the space; the wooden floor creaked, threatening to break under Samuel’s feet. All those weeks of hunting for answers, the flight to Japan — there were so few flights going anywhere — fizzled into nothingness the moment he stepped inside the shop. Samuel should have known better. He shouldn’t have chased hope, because hope was a mirage. He wished he had stayed with his family.

Miyazaki pushed aside the curtain that separated the store’s main room from his living space.

“Welcome Samuel-san,” Miyazaki said as he bowed. Samuel stood. He thought Miyazaki was close to eighty, his wrinkled face like sand on a windswept beach, but everyone looked older than their chronological age.

“How do you—”

“Your investigations on the internet were not unnoticed. I’ve been expecting you.” Before Samuel had a chance to say, “If you knew I was coming, why didn’t you tell me not to bother,” Miyazaki pulled a watch out of his pants pocket. “The Snowflake.” Small stars glinted in Miyazaki’s eyes. “This is what you’ve been looking for.”

“Yes.”

Miyazaki handed Samuel a water bottle. “And this, too, I’m sure.”

“Yes.” Samuel unscrewed the cap and downed half the bottle. “Thank you.”

“Now that you’ve found me and the Snowflake, you’ve completed half your mission.” Mayazaki handed Samuel the watch.

Samuel stared blankly at Miyazaki.

“You don’t understand.”

“No.” Samuel held the Grand Seiko Snowflake, staring at its face. He imagined a howling north wind and swirling snow. “This is it?”

“You must take this watch to Kamikochi and set it in the snow.”

Samuel shook his head. “There is no more snow, not in Japan, not even in the Alps, not anywhere in the world.”

“There is. The last snow in the world is in Kamikochi. It’s high in the mountains, next to a shrine. But you have to go soon because it’s uncertain how much longer the snow will remain.”

“That’s it? I just put the watch in the snow next to the shrine in Kamikochi?”

Miyazaki’s lips cracked when he smiled. “Almost. You must walk to Kamikochi, Samuel.”

“That will take days and days.”

Miyazaki took Samuel’s hand and nudged his fingers so they wrapped around the watch. “Carry the watch. Don’t wear it until after you put it in the snow. Then return here for a blessing.”

It took Samuel seven days to walk to Kamikochi and another seven days to return to Miyazaki’s Watch Shop. His feet were masses of blisters, his legs needles of pain, his brain still caught in the fog that surrounded the shrine. He found Miyazaki standing exactly where he had been when Samuel left, wearing the same clothes. The cat that had been drinking from the water bowl was still lapping the water. Samuel glanced at the clocks on the wall, all showing the same time, 1:18 p.m. — the time he had left.

“What just happened?”

“How long were you gone for?” Miyazaki asked.

“Two weeks. My family must be worried about me.”

Photo by Stefan Molin
“Perhaps they are. But not because you were gone for two weeks. It was two weeks from your perspective, but less than a minute has passed in real time.”

“What?”

“You stepped out the door and stepped right back in.”

Samuel’s broken body disagreed. And yet everything was exactly as it had been when he left the shop.

Miyazaki continued, “You traveled through the intersection of science and magic. In this universe, twenty-seven percent of what we call matter is unseen — dark matter. Sixty-eight percent of the energy in this universe is dark energy — energy we can’t detect, but it is as real as energy we do use, electricity and nuclear for instance. Even with the most powerful instruments we can only see five percent of the universe. Isn’t that interesting? As for magic, that’s why you’re here. Like dark matter and dark energy, just because we can’t see or touch magic, doesn’t make it unreal. The unseen is physical and magical.”

"Who are you?”

Miyazaki remained silent.

“What do I do?”

“The same thing that brought you here. Take a leap of faith.”

Miyazaki nodded toward the watch, which was now fastened on Samuel’s wrist. He stepped close to Samuel, put his fingertips on the Grand Seiko and spoke in a language that was Japanese and not Japanese. When Miyazaki finished, he locked eyes with Samuel and said, “The Snowflake will take you, but you are the magic that drives it. Now go to your family and save them.”


*****

Samuel took Isabel’s and Angeline’s hands. He stood up, lifting them. He guided his wife and daughter to the balcony. His flesh burned as he pushed open the metal door.

“Ow,” Isabel said. The fiery sun scorched her face.

Samuel cast his eyes to the ground, thirty-seven floors below. He nodded to Angeline.

“Do we—”

“We are the magic,” Samuel said. “Just look at the watch when we do it.” He kneeled, put his hand under Isabel’s chin, and lifted her head so her eyes met his. “Sweet pea. We’re going to do this one thing. We’re going to a place where it’s never hot. A place where we can be cool and happy.” Samuel kissed Isabel’s forehead. “All you need to do is look at Daddy’s watch and keep looking at it. Okay?”

Isabel touched Samuel’s watch. “It feels like snow.” 

“It does. Can you keep looking at it, no matter what?”

“It’s a pretty watch, Daddy. I can.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. Samuel lifted Isabel to the balcony railing and held her right hand. Angeline climbed onto the railing on his other side. He stuck his left arm out, wrist twisted so the Snowflake’s dial faced them. “Everyone look at Daddy’s watch. Remember, keep looking — eyes on the snowfield on the dial.” Samuel took a deep breath. The air seared his lungs. “One, two, three!”

They jumped.

A hand reached down and firmly grasped Samuel’s hand. Samuel blinked, then blinked again. He began to stand on his own, but the man attached to the hand that was pulling him up said, “Slow, slow. It’s best you don’t move too fast at first. You’ve got some acclimating to do.”

Samuel looked to his left and right. A girl about twelve years old was helping Isabel to her feet, while a woman a little older than Angeline was helping her stand. Snow filled all the space around them. Tall mountains loomed in the distance, also covered in snow. “You made it, partner. Welcome.”

A crunching sound surrounded Samuel as his body displaced the snow. He grabbed a fistful of snow, opened his hand, and let the flakes fall between his fingers. “Where are we?”

“Can’t exactly say for sure. Where are you from?”

“Singapore.”

“Well, you’re not in Singapore anymore. You’re not anywhere on Earth as best we can figure.”

Samuel pointed to the man’s watch. “A Grand Seiko Snowflake?”

The man nodded. “That’s the ticket.”

“Daddy, is this snow?” Isabel plopped down onto the soft ground. She rolled over several times and then said, “Look at me! Look at me!” Isabel laid back, spread her legs and arms, slipping through snow like a manta ray gliding through the ocean, and made a snow angel.




Thanks to Samuel Chan for inspiring the idea for this story.

Thanks to the Grand Seiko Owners Club for the fantastic Snowflake photos. 

And thanks to Ashley Jenkins for her comments on an a draft of The Snowflake. 

If you’re not familiar with the Grand Seiko Snowflake, start here




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