A Scandinavian legend, retold by Ilil Arbel
Once upon a time, the snow kept on falling, the wind howled, and even the oldest people could not remember such a cold winter. March, April, May came, without a single day of sunshine, without a flower or a blade of grass. The villagers could not sow or plant, and feared starvation. In addition, the snowdrifts isolated them from other villages. What happened to Spring?
By June, the mayor called a meeting and the villagers assembled in the town hall. The roaring fire did little to heat the ice-cold large room, and the villagers sat on the wooden benches, rubbing their hands and moving their legs to keep warm. Outside, the storm raged.
"Citizens," said the mayor, his face grim and tired. "I have finally received news from another village. Apparently, Spring is held captive by Old Man Winter, up in the North Pole. Several villages and towns sent their bravest people to rescue her, but none of them returned. They say that further North, entire villages starved and froze to death. They want us to send someone now."
A hush came over the room. No one dared to speak for a long time. Finally, a man named Oscar got up. Very young and alone in the world, he was nevertheless well respected for his honesty and industry. "Mayor," said Oscar. "I will go to the North Pole and see if I can match wits with Old Man Winter."
"Are you sure, Oscar?" asked the mayor. "What can a single young man do against the strength of Old Man Winter?"
"Perhaps it's not strength that will conquer him," said Oscar. "Perhaps perseverance, and cunning, and the love of Spring will serve better."
"Very well," said the mayor. "If nothing is done, starvation is a sure thing. We will outfit you for the trip as best we can, and be with you in spirit."
Within a couple of days, Oscar left for the North Pole, carrying a large bundle of food and warm clothes. Gradually the air grew colder, the wind barely allowed him to trudge on, and the hard snow whipped his face. The landscape around him gleamed white, desolate, and terrifying, but he kept on, lovingly thinking of Spring. However, soon he found it very hard to keep up his spirits as he passed through ruined villages, empty of people and animals, everything frozen to ice. The further North he went, the worst was the devastation.
A few weeks passed, and finally Oscar saw Old Man Winter's huge ice castle looming in the distance. Cautiously approaching the enormous edifice, he determined not to enter through the front door, since he wished to trick Old Man Winter. He started looking for other entrances, but the wide, empty space did not allow any cover, and before he knew what happened three tall, armored soldiers surrounded him and dragged him to the palace. They made him enter a spacious room, empty except for a few rabbits, small deer, and guinea pigs, all shivering with cold. Surprised at his environment, Oscar sat down on a bench to rest, and promptly fell asleep.
"Wake up, wake up," said someone next to him. The voice seemed to come from the ground. Oscar opened his eyes, but saw no one. Looking down to search for the invisible creature, his eyes fell on his hands, and to his horror, he saw they were no longer human, but tiger's paws! Jumping up from the bench, he fell heavily on all four, and realized that he had turned into a huge orange tiger. A white rabbit sat a little further away. Bloodthirsty rage suddenly flooded Oscar's thoughts. Forgetting everything, he only knew he was terribly hungry and lunged after the rabbit, but it was too fast. It ran in a zigzag fashion, leading Oscar into a dark corridor.
After a while, Oscar knew he lost the rabbit, and sat down on the rough ground. Confusion and uncertainty mingled in his mind, and slowly, his memory returned and his own actions horrified him. Tears filled his eyes, and he hid his huge head between his paws, shaking with sorrow and shame. "It's all right, my friend" the rabbit's small voice reached him from a niche in the wall, where it was well protected from the tiger's rage, should it rise again. "This is what Old Man Winter does to people when they come here to save Spring. He turns them into animals and they forget their humanity."
"What shall I do?" whispered Oscar. "I don't want to hurt you, or any other person here. What shall I do to remember my humanity and my purpose?"
"There is only one way to remember, and we must do it right now, before you forget again. Give me your paw, and I'll tattoo your name on it. When you are filled again with animal rage, the name will remind you who you are. I have my name tattooed on my paw, and all my friends have theirs, too." Oscar extended his paw obediently into the niche and told the rabbit his name. He suffered the painful tattooing without flinching.
"Who are you, and why did you risk your life to make me come here?" Oscar asked when the treatment was over. The rabbit emerged out of the niche, no longer in need of shelter. "I am Greta," said the rabbit, sitting next to Oscar. "I come from a small village in the North. All the villagers and our animals froze to death, and as the only survivor, I decided to try and help anyone who went to save Spring.
Little did we know what cruel Old Man Winter had in mind. Many people roam the ice fields in their animal form, having completely forgotten who they once were. Saving Spring is our only hope of survival"
"But what can you do? I am sure these soldiers hunt for anyone who had not fully become an animal," said Oscar.
"We live underground, foraging for food when we can. We are digging a tunnel under the ice castle to reach Spring's jail. But we are too small and weak. Every day I attempt to make contact with a large animal, but until I met you I did not succeed. I am so happy you managed to retain your memory. With your large claws, you can dig faster than any of us, and we will stand behind and collect the dirt and ice."
Greta took Oscar to the hiding place, a dark underground natural cave. It protected the animals from the cold but had no natural light, so they used torches made from wooden sticks and rags dipped in oil. They were terrified at first, but Oscar kept his tattooed paw constantly before his eyes, and they knew he would not hurt them. The animals brought Oscar's bag from the large hall, so everyone shared the good food in it and Oscar rested for a little while. "Show me the tunnel," he then said. "I am anxious to start digging."
The tunnel was surprisingly long, considering the small size of the diggers, and lit with more torches. Greta told him that it took them months to go that far. Oscar started digging with such fury that the animals found it hard to keep up with him as they removed the dirt and ice. He dug for days, often forgetting to eat or sleep, and Greta consulted a map she cleverly drew of the palace and underground area, and showed him the direction he needed to follow.
One day, as Oscar was digging, he suddenly noticed that the tunnel was turning up and he was near the surface. Greta must have made a mistake in her calculations, but it was too late to do anything about it. The frozen ground broke above him and a large piece of ice fell on his head. Oscar collapsed, stunned by the blow, and for a few days hovered between life and death. Greta and the other animals sat by his big body, trying to keep him warm. They had no medicine, no help; they could only watch and wait.
Finally, Oscar opened his eyes. He growled in confusion and anger, not knowing who or where he was. The small animals fled in all directions. Only Greta kept her head. Jumping under his tattooed paw, she shoved it in front of his face, and as soon as he saw his name, Oscar recovered his memory.
"I must repair the opening," said Oscar. "The guards may discover it."
"We already did that when you were ill," said Greta. "We are safe. But I am so sorry, this accident was my fault, I made a mistake in my calculations. Perhaps someone else should try to find the direction, I have failed you."
"Please don't feel this way," said Oscar. "You are the only one here with the talent for maps and for finding directions. What should we do without you? Anyone can make a mistake." The other animals nodded in agreement, and Greta felt better. Worked resumed the next day.
When they reached the area just under the jail, Greta asked Oscar to stop digging. "We must recruit more large animals," she said. "We may have to fight with the soldiers who guard Spring."
Cheerfully risking her life, Greta went every day to the large hall to find a large animal. Eventually, a large wolf was brought in, and Greta repeated the tactics she used with Oscar to make the wolf chase her to the tunnels. Oscar waited for her there, pounced and subdued the wolf, then held it pinned to the ground while Greta tattooed his paw. She did not know the wolf's name, so instead she tattooed the word "Spring," hoping it would work. And indeed as soon as the wolf saw the word, his memory returned.
"I am the leader of a pack of wolves," he said. "My memory comes and goes, so the guards took me back to the hall to finally transform me, but luckily you came on time. My entire pack were human and I know all their names, so we can trick them here and restore their humanity, one by one." They successfully recruited the wolves, a few bears, and a lion, thus creating a small army.
Finally, they reached Spring's jail. Cautiously, Oscar raised his large head out of the tunnel to see her. Spring was locked up behind bars, all made of strong ice, and at least twenty soldiers stood guard around the cell. She slept peacefully under Old Man Winter's enchantment, her golden hair spread around her quiet figure, her green dress still clean and fresh. Even jail could not mar Spring's glory. Still, there were no flowers around her, since they all froze, and Spring without flowers is a sad sight.
They burst out of the tunnel, and the sudden sight of the large group of animals charging at them was so frightening, that the guards did not even try to fight. They scattered and ran for help. The animals had to hurry to finish the job and wake Spring before Old Man Winter himself came to destroy them.
Oscar and the wolves threw themselves against the bars. Again and again they tried, but the bars did not budge. Desperately, he looked at Greta for advice. Were they going to fail after all this effort? Let the world die of cold? "Melt the bars," cried Greta over the screaming and confusion and shoved a torch into Oscar's mouth. He held the torch against one of the bars. To the animal's intense joy, the bar quickly melted! One by one the bars disappeared, and Oscar burst into the jail, followed by the other animals. They stood around Spring, suddenly silent with awe. Spring opened her big blue eyes and looked lovingly at her saviors. Rising from her couch, she stood, swaying lightly, and the air around them began to warm up and fill with a delicious scent. Together they left the jail, violets and snowdrops sprouting out of Springs hands, hair and long dress, and trailing behind her. The snow melted in little rivulets as she glided toward the ice castle, and suddenly the sun came out from behind the black clouds, pouring light and warmth over the desolate landscape.
Oscar saw Old Man Winter flying out of a window in his silver slay and heading toward the group. He looked terrifying in his gray swirling robe and flowing white hair and beard, his hard eyes looking malevolently at the animals. Old Man Winter landed his vehicle and stood before Spring, frowning and holding his magic wand, which was made of diamond-hard ice, towards her. Spring smiled and pointed at it with her delicate finger. "You cannot win again, Old Man Winter," she said in a voice that sounded like a gentle mountain spring mixed with soft breezes and bird calls. "I was asleep when you kidnapped me, and alone. Now I am awake, and surrounded by loving people. I am now stronger than you, and you know it" Golden light flowed out of her finger and melted the icy magic wand. "Go home, Old Man Winter, and wait for next year. You have done great evil, and you should spend the next few months thinking about your crime and learning to regret it. Do not try to disturb the order of the seasons ever again, because if you continue to do so, Nature will eventually notice and take Her revenge." Old Man Winter looked at the snow melting under his feet, climbed into his slay and flew back to the castle, defeated. The animals cheered.
Spring kissed each animal, and immediately it assumed his or her normal human shape. They were all strong, good-looking, and nicely dressed in new outfits, and Oscar noticed that Greta became a beautiful, dark-haired young woman. But this did not surprise him, since he already appreciated her great charm and admired her even when she was a rabbit. "I must go and restore the world," said Spring gently. "Thanks to you, my heroes, all will be well again. Summer and Autumn will follow me, and Old Man Winter will not dare to interfere again." She flew away, trailed by a stream of rose petals that showered the people as they waved at her. And so they said their goodbyes to each other, and all turned toward the town or village they came from. Only Greta and Oscar remained.
"I have nowhere to go," said Greta sorrowfully. "As I told you, my village is gone." Oscar looked at her, and knew that after their adventures together, he never wanted to separate from Greta again. He took her hand in his. Strangely, both of them still had the tattoos on their human hands, a permanent memory of their heroic deed.
"You can come with me to my village and make it your home," he said. "My friends will welcome you when I tell them how brave you are, and how your cunning saved Spring. I had the physical strength, but I could have never done it without your wisdom."
And so it came to be. Greta and Oscar went back to their village, where everyone welcomed them as heroes. They were soon married on the village green, where wonderful flowers grew again, and lived happily ever after.