It was a motley crew, consisting of Katja, Sola, Darre, and a couple of others; and it became more motley still when they reached the ground floor and were joined by several people from other floors. Including, it should be said, Helvi Hokomenen, who did some kind of work on fish populations on the third floor. He was standing right in front of the elevator, so when the elevator door opened, everyone could see and hear him talking to a co-worker about how excellent the skiing was near his mountain cottage on Metsenia. Sola looked at Katja; Katja looked at Sola; and Katja succeeded, although Sola failed, to keep from laughing. Unfortunately it drew Helvi's attention immediately and gave him an excuse to move over to Katja and Sola.
"So!" he said. "It sounds like you are having heaps of fun." Everything was 'heaps' with Helvi.
"Just an inside joke," said Katja, then, to change the subject: "I am excited for the snow dance. I haven't actually attended one since I was a little girl. The last time it snowed here I was sick and missed all the fun."
"They are fun," Helvi said enthusiastically. Everything was enthusiastic with Helvi. "There's one going on almost every time I visit my cottage in the Jyvasky. And they are big, because they are regular things, there. You should see them...." And so they would not feel left out for not having seen them, he began talking about them in detail as they all headed out.
Katja stifled a sigh. Poor Helvi; he was really a very nice man, after all. He had looks, too. He was tall, with large, sparkling eyes, and the enthusiasm, grating as it was to be around, did not hurt his looks in the slightest, since the man seemed often to glow, in that subtle but lovely way that warm summer nights glow. He had a good voice, almost baritone and always animated. There was always a smile on his face, as there should well have been, since he always only talked about his favorite things. It was just that the enthusiasm was grating. And the list of favorite things seemed unfortunately to consist entirely of Helvi himself, and his parents, and cottages on Metsenia, and fish. Katja could not imagine herself spending the rest of her life talking about cottages and fish. It was difficult enough to imagine spending a week talking about cottages and fish, and as for imagining what it was like to spend an evening talking about cottages and fish, she had no need to imagine it, and now wished she could simply forget it. She stifled a sigh again.
The party made its way to the northern rail station on the University grounds. The electromagnetic rail on the Island went in one continual loop: the northern rail went from west to east and the southern east to west. The northern line was always more crowded. Anyone who visits the Island quickly comes to realize that the northern part of the Island is the most beautiful part. For most of the way the trolley runs on a high cliff that overlooks the ocean; most of the shrines and parks on the Island are also in the north, because the soil is better and the protection from the weather better there. The Shrine of Tepi, the most important on the Island, was no exception to this. The Shrine is located in a wooded area, green with pine and juniper most of the year round. Now everything was draped in white sheets.
They all piled out and walked the winding path up to the Shrine. The Shrine itself was unassuming, little more than a log cabin with a beautifully carved archway, and it was usually a quiet and almost deserted place, except during the Tepi Days. Today, however, it was all different; colorful banners and streamers had been put up everywhere, and a great crowd of people had gathered. The curator of the Shrine was standing just in front of the archway, two young men bearing flaming pine torches beside him, and he was just beginning the sanalasa of Snow:
Snow I know; it starts with winter's breath,
cloudy fog bunching like white cotton;
the fog and air are full of chill seeds.
In the fertile air they are planted....
The sanalasa of Snow is one of the most extensive of the major saanalaasa; like all of the major saanalaasa it opens with an extensive description, then moves into a relevant story of the ancient Sylven heroes, in this case the story of how Music overcame the giant Frost and stole the snowfall from him. It is widely considered the most beautiful of the saanalaasa, although for her own part Katja preferred the sanalasa of Iron. The curator recited the whole thing, and everyone softly recited along with him, at least what the fragments they could remember of it, and created a soft shushing murmur beneath the curator's chant. Katja knew the whole thing by heart, although she had not actually recited the entire charm since she had first gone to University for a certificate in Classics and Sciences.
When the poem was finished, the whole crowd processed away from the Shrine and through the woods for quite some time until they came to a great clearing. Some of the crowd, who were bearing haana, Sylven zithers, broke away and sat on some rocks at the edge of the clearing. Everyone then forming lines with linked arms -- for this is how the Syylven dance -- or, if they did want to dance, gathered on the edges to keep the beat and sing. Then the hana-players began to play, and the sidelines began to clap and sing the Snow Dance Song:
Ohu threw down fresh snow, soft new snow,
to cover heather and hide berry;
the world was white
as Sylve's children sang, laughed, and danced
upon the heather, beside berry.
The world was white,
and everyone danced in happy lines
upon the heather, beside berry,
snow in their hair,
as the haana spoke the words of snow
that covered heather and hid berry.
Snow in their hair,
they all joined arms with smiling faces
and danced on heather, beside berry.
The world was white....
They danced for some time, kicking their heels across the clearing and then jumping around and kicking their heels back. Some people moved into the lines and others moved from line to sideline, and then, after they had danced to several snow songs and come back to the Snow Dance Song again, and the snow in the clearing was so thoroughly trampled it no longer sprayed upward with the kicking heels, the lines began to break up. Some people left, but others had a makeshift picnic as the smerre salesmen went in and out among the crowd with large baskets of hot smeerre of fish or chicken, and rye or wheat. Candy-sellers went around selling woodtar-licorice. The sun eventually came out from behind the cloud, and between its warmth and a wind that suddenly picked up from the sea, threatened to make things icy, so the crowd began to break up. The party Katja had come with itself split in two. Some of the group wanted to walk back, and others to take the trolley back. The trolley route was actually longer; since the line went in one great circle, the trolley would first continue east and only at Belerve Point turn back west; and when it reached the University again it would be at the southern rail station, which would require walking entirely uphill back to the Ecological Institute. And as the southern line was set back from the sea and in extensive parts underground to protect it from storm, there was nothing like the pretty scenery of the north along most of the route. But the Sylven lunch is about three hours long and, as it was only about halfway through at this point, there was time enough. Katja opted for the trolley, although in truth this was partly because Helvi was the most vocal proponent of the walk.
Thus she found herself besides Darre, big and fat -- although there was far more big to him than fat, as people learned in the tug-of-war championships the University held each summer -- on the trolley ride home.
"Before I forget," said Darre, "will you want a box of vegetables next week."
"Will you have vegetables with all this snow?"
"Of course," said Darre. "This time of year they are all from the greenhouse, anyway." She remembered seeing the greenhouses at Darre's farm one year -- there were all-year greenhouses of metal frame and glass, but most of the greenhouses were large makeshift greenhouses of wood and plastic, serving mostly just to protect the cold-weather plants from unusual chill. "There will be more radish and breadtuber in the mix than usual, but we'll certainly have broccoli and, if we're lucky some calendula and pansy. I was hoping for chard at this point, but something has severely hurt it this year, and we haven't figured out the mystery yet."
"I'd be glad to have them," she said. "I have an excellent chicken-and-calendula recipe that I rarely get to use."
"I think I remember that," said Darre. "You brought it to the potluck last year."
"The year before, I think."
"That's right. I'll try to remember to make doubly sure that the wife sets some aside for you." He stretched and yawned. "Exercise in cold weather always makes me sleepy." And, sure enough, he was asleep in a matter of minutes, gently snoring away.
Katja did not nap on the way back, but simply sat back, lost in thought. Her life was good, but for some reason she felt like she needed a vacation, and someplace other than Helvi's cottage on Metsenia. She had been to Metsenia once, for a conference; but that aside, she had lived on the Island her whole life, and perhaps she just needed to see more of the Sylven worlds. Ilvenia, perhaps; the overall climate was very close to that of Sylvenia, although Ilvenia was actually undergoing a long warming period rather than an ice age as Sylvenia was. She thought for a moment of going farther abroad, among the Ylfae, perhaps -- she was fluent in the language, after all, and constantly writing reports in Ylfae. For that matter, the entire Alliance was open to her, because she spoke Simplified Samar. But her mind shut those options off. If you went too far away you never came back, and she very much did want to come back. And there were all those stories, certainly without foundation in fact, but also unable to be forgotten, about people who went out so far that they simply forgot the way home and spent the rest of their lives wandering strange Alliance worlds in the hope of finding some clue that would point the way. Going out among the strange nations was not something one really did, or even thought of doing; it was odd to think of it now.
The trolley pulled into the southern rail station on the University grounds. She woke Darre and they walked back together, talking about radishes and what could be done with them, exchanging recipes.
The two afternoon hours in the Sylvenian workday are devoted to meetings of various sorts; Katja and a few others had reports to present, but the snow day had thrown things into a bit of a disarray, as people had difficulty getting back into the spirit of work. They broke early and, after setting some things in order at her desk, Katja walked home.
The Oracle was especially lovely this evening. Dusk was coming on, but the little building seemed intent on holding the sunset as long as possible; as everything around it grew blue, then violent, then dark, it still glowed with some kind of inner light. The light grew fainter, so that it never quite blazed, but the lag made it seem like it was its own miniature sunset sky, enjoying its own snow-day festivity on the Oracle Hill.
It had been a full day, and Katja was tired, so after a quick bite of flatbread and dried fish, she got ready for bread. As she lay down and closed her eyes she suddenly realized, with a small pain of regret, that she had completely forgotten ti use the suvo for the day ("Ill fares the people who have no guide;" she said to herself, remembering, "Good only inhabits just desires."). And that was the last clear thought she had before sleep.