I didn’t see a damn thing, but she seemed pretty convinced.
‘I saw him! The Snowcat – over there – I did!’
‘OK honey, just keep hold of my hand, it’s slippery out here.’
I scanned the ground quickly for paw prints, but you don’t see paw prints of the Snowcat.
‘I saw him, I saw him! Let’s go!’ You could hardly tell the ground from the sky, everything was so white and grainy, like an old black and white TV on the static channel after the shut down. But I guess Ellie had sharper eyes than I did.
‘Which way’d he go honey?’
‘Thatta way!’ Her paw thrust out in her red mittens, out into the snowscape over there, towards the forest. The light was beginning to gloom, ready to play tricks on the eyes. It was only about four o’clock but already the horizon was submerging into the ground. They’d be no sunset tonight.
‘We’ll just walk a little way, OK?’
‘Aw! I wanna track Snowcat properly! You promised!’
‘Yes I know I promised, but that was this morning. It’s getting late now.’
We’d been walking the snow fields around the cabin for about four hours now, she never got tired. This was one game she never got tired of. Every year since my father, her grandfather, told her the story of the Snowcat about six Christmases ago, she’d wake up too early on Boxing Day morning and go running into dad’s room, yelling, ‘Granpa, Granpa, wake up – it’s time to go Snowcat tracking!’ And off they’d go, all wrapped up in new mitttens and coats and boots with a pack of left-over turkey and they’d traipse around the snow fields and the forest for hours until she got tired. Then they’d come home as the sun was going down, totally exhausted, and she’d fall asleep with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to dad’s stories about the Snowcat. This was the first year without Granpa, so I was conscripted as tracker. I wasn’t surprised, but today we’d not seen any sign of the elusive Snowcat – until now.
‘Please mommy! Please let’s track the Snowcat properly!’
I looked warily at the horizon, at the few flakes drifting down and at my daughter, her lower lip red from the cold. If I turned around I could just see the sun disappearing through the clouds over the town and, up ahead, the light of the moon filtered weakly over the forest of the Snowcat.
‘OK honey, but we’ll track him just to the forest and that’s it, your father will be wondering what’s happened to us.’
She gave a little yelp and dragged me off in the direction of the invisible tracks.
I had been worried about how it would be without dad to lead this mischievous wild goose chase. Ellie was always so excited about tracking the Snowcat, it was all she would talk about for weeks before Christmas and all she would talk about for weeks afterwards. She had been getting increasingly desperate as the day wore on without any sight of the Snowcat, without my father to help her. But she was a persistent little madam and we kept on through the snow, searching the ground for the invisible tracks. As we tracked him, she recited the story of the Snowcat, word for word, as she’d memorised it from dad.
‘The Snowcat is a very rare beast. He sleeps all year round tucked in the hollow of a tree – except for one day a year and one day only. He only wakes up when he hears the laughter of the little boys and girls – but it’s got to be loud and clear, not just any old laughter. You can’t fool the Snowcat!’ She shouted the last bit happily, like he’d always done.
‘And what’s the day that all the little boys and girls are laughing? Why it’s Boxing Day of course! That’s the day when all the little boys and girls are let out to play with the presents they got for Christmas. So the Snowcat walks the earth on just this one day of the year and he’s almost invisible because his coat is so so white and snowy that he just blends right into the ground and the snow. And the Snowcat doesn’t leave any footprints at all because his feet don’t melt the snow because he treads so softly, like a snowflake. That’s why he’s called the Snowcat.’
She looked up to check I was still listening. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘The Snowcat walks all around the town and the fields – no one sees him and no one hears him because everybody is so happy playing and having fun and his tracks are invisible and his coat blends in with the snow. He listens to all the little boys and girls laughing and playing and then, when the sun goes down, he goes back to his hollow tree to sleep the rest of the year. And – I forgot a bit! – And he’s got huge ears, like trumpets, and they soak up all the laughter so that he dreams happy dreams all year when he’s sleeping!’
Her arms swung happily, swinging mine almost out of their sockets.
‘So if you track him before he disappears into the hollow tree – if you can track him with his invisible footsteps and his camouflage coat – then he will share all the laughter with you and you’ll only dream happy dreams for a whole year!’
She finished triumphantly just as we reached the edge of the forest. I looked nervously ahead. The forest was dark now, completely dark. There was no way we’d be able to get in and out without a torch. I sighed.
‘Come on Ellie, it’s too dark now. We can’t go in without a torch.’
‘No! We’ve got to! Granpa would let me! We always tracked the Snowcat right to his hollow tree and I always had happy dreams afterwards – we’ve got to – otherwise I’ll have nightmares!’
I sighed again. There’d never been such a cat. It was just a story my father made up to entertain her. And now with him gone…the memory was painful.
She tailed off, ‘Granpa would let me…’
I turned around and looked back across the fields. There was something very gloomy and grey and fuzzy about the scene. Just a barren snow field and a few shapes that must have been hedgerows underneath the snow and the vague traces of telephone wires against the grey fluttery sky. And way back there, beyond the furthest hedgerow, the town and our cabin on the very outskirts of that. You could just see the faintest little trickle of smoke escaping from the chimney. John must be sitting there, in front of the fire. Maybe dozing, maybe watching an old movie on TV, maybe reading. I felt the little hand in mine – not tugging, but an urgency, an energy, an impulse. I turned back.
‘OK honey, just five minutes, just for granpa.’
‘Yay!’ And she tugged away down into the path of the forest.
The frozen leaves crunched and crackled under our footsteps – a different kind of crunch to the deep snow that we’d covered over the fields. A twigletty crackle.
‘I see him up ahead! He waited for us – good Snowcat!’ I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were just getting used to the new gloom of the forest, but Ellie was surging ahead, following whatever her eyes imagined for us.
‘Look mom – can’t you see? Up there, by the old tree with the burn mark!’
I knew the tree, but couldn’t see a thing. There were no tracks, but then there wouldn’t be. I couldn’t even hear a sound in the muffled snowscape.
He was always telling the tallest stories, my father, always playing around, always making something out of nothing. The smallest little trip would have to be an adventure. You couldn’t just have a quiet family walk – it would turn into the great escape from a jail house or hunting down a Russian spy – or tracking the Snowcat at Christmas time. In truth it was annoying and embarrassing for me growing up as a kid. It might sound great fun, but he used to do it all the time, every little thing would get his treatment and it used to wear us down, me and my mother. I remember once – I must have been having a teenage temper tantrum – we were just out doing the shopping and he was trying to turn it into a secret mission to gather ingredients for a nuclear bomb and it just got too much. I dropped the basket right there in the middle of the shop and shouted at him – ‘Stop it! This is not a munitions store, this food is not depleted uranium, this is not the Second World War and you are not General Eisenhower – I am not your toy!’ And I stormed right out of that shop while my poor dad had to decide whether to pick the broken eggs up from the floor or come after me.
There was a squeal from beside me –
‘Look – there!’
I turned my eyes up from the snow.
The moon was shining a narrow beam of light through the trees and there, with his front paws resting on a big gnarled root of the hollow tree, was the most beautiful cat I ever imagined. My breath caught in my throat – he was the purest white – I can’t describe it. His coat was made of the finest snowflakes that have ever fallen – made with the purest water from the purest stream. He had huge ears, like…like trumpets, alert, listening to our heart beats. He was so still and watchful, the air turning to ice with the warmth of his breath. My heart was pounding and I felt the little hand in mine, hot and alive. Ellie and me and the Snowcat stared at each other – it was only a few seconds – until a cloud passed over the moon and the apparition was gone.